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Are video games like novels? Maybe not exactly, but as literature scholar Eric Hayot asserts, “any understanding of video games that does not include the novel … will necessarily be incomplete.” Video games are influenced by more traditional forms of storytelling, but also  influence storytelling back. And tracing their history uncovers some unusual ways that video games have played with conventional ideas of fiction.

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Early research on video games tended to underscore their differences from traditional narrative. Hayot writes that “games were so different from novels, films, or drama that anyone seeking to simply slot them into that longer aesthetic history would be effectively attempting to ‘colonize’ a new medium.” And this was coming from those who championed gaming. Maybe that was true for games like Tetris or Super Mario Brothers where the “kinesthetic and interactive structures,” i.e. the running, jumping, and spinning were the main point. But like any other medium, it’s difficult to place them all into a single box, or to give them all a similar definition. As Hayot points out, “Plenty of video games involve stories, enough that attempting to think about what games do or are, culturally speaking, without any sense of how storytelling works would be a pretty odd thing to do.”

Take Spike Lee’s 2015 film Livin’ Da Dream, a 90-minute film that video game researcher TreaAndrea M. Russworm describes as a “a black family melodrama.” That Lee, a prolific filmmaker, would make a movie isn’t news. What made this one so different was its inclusion in a video game. The mediums collide in what Russworm notes is an intentional disruption of “the boundaries between video games and cinema, gameplay and spectatorship.” The film appears in NBA 2K16’s “MyCareer” mode, and “is something that will centralize a narrative, or as Lee tells his audience, this time the mode will feature his kind of storytelling.” As Russworm explains, elements of the game/film “preclude any attempts to impact the narrative,” making it not quite a game or a film, but a different kind of storytelling.

Though early video games like Pong may have lacked what we think of a narrative, games “belong to a longer history of storytelling,” writes Hayot. Sure, it’s just a white ball bouncing from paddle to paddle across a pixelated screen, but it draws from earlier traditions. “Interaction was a story-mode for centuries,” Hayot explains, noting the history of shouting at stages in everything from Punch and Judy shows to Shakespeare. And as Russworm writes, the “synergy between game and cinema … blurs many of the traditional, formal distinctions between the two mediums.” Video games are not just their own way of storytelling, but are continually drawing from others, creating a new way of thinking about the craft. As Hayot explains, “any true understanding of what narrative aesthetics are doing in general, is impossible if we do not also understand the work video games are doing on that front.”

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Daedalus, Vol. 150, No. 1, On the Novel (Winter 2021), pp. 178-187
The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Black Camera, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Fall 2018), pp. 193-212
Indiana University Press