Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Thinking outside the (X) box: The collision between video games and books

Not being a gamer, I found this correlation between the games and books that come after fascinating.  Perhaps this will help we boomer librarians to understand what teens and young adults would like to see in their public library.
Mark Medley | Nov 16, 2012 11:30 AM ET National Post
Illustration by Mike Faille
Illustration by Mike Faille

Assassin’s Creed: Forsaken; Gears of War: The Slab; StarCraft II: Flashpoint. These are neither the latest button-mashers, first-person shooters, nor massive multiplayer online games. They are books.
A video game can cost millions of dollars to produce — Grand Theft Auto 4, it is said, cost upwards of $100-million to make — so it makes fiscal sense to leverage a popular franchise beyond just consoles. It’s been going on for a long time in other mediums — Star Wars and Star Trek novelizations, for instance, dwarf their film and television counterparts — and now, increasingly, developers are looking outside the (X) box, allying with publishers to tell stories that provide their product with extra lives.
“If [people] are going to spend time playing the games, and they can read a book that makes the game a little more interesting for them at the same time, that’s a win-win,” says Kevin Grace, franchise manager at 343 Industries in Seattle, which developed the just-released Halo 4. Books, he continues, “are a really good opportunity for us to get fans right into the details of the universe, and what’s happening around them when they pop that disc in and start the game up.
“If they want to put their feet up and think about things a little bit, we can give them a Halo story in a book,” he adds. “And if they just want to sit on the couch and start blowing things up, we’ve got plenty of fun for them there, too.”
A few years ago, when development on Halo 4 began, Grace hired Greg Bear, a Hugo Award-winning writer of science-fiction classics such as The Forge of God, to produce The Forerunner Trilogy, a series set 100,000 years in the game’s past that both explains the origin of the Halo universe and acts as prologue to the new game.
“It’s more than just a game book,” says Bear, on the phone from his home in Seattle. “This is a very intelligently written, classically oriented science fiction trilogy … which just happens to underlie all of the Halo games.”
Working on novels based on someone else’s characters means certain compromises have to be made. “It’s like collaborating with the game makers,” he says. For instance, while working on the final volume in the trilogy, Silentium, which comes out next year, he had to make changes to the final third of the book to line up with the game. After all, after years of development “they don’t want to change it to fit my book,” he says. “Over the last two or three revisions, we have come down to where most of the really great stuff is still there, but it fits the game.”
Stacy Hill, his editor at Tor, puts it more bluntly: “The manuscript isn’t considered final without approval from the game company.”
Bear hopes the trilogy acts as a sort of gateway drug for gamers who might not be regular readers.
“These people haven’t read a lot of science fiction,” he notes. “And with the Halo trilogy … they’re being introduced to Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, my own fiction — all that sort of stuff. The classic SF that I was raised on in the 1950s.”
Hill, who has also edited books based on Dead Space and Dragon Age, says she’s heard from teachers, parents and librarians who say these novels also appeal to reluctant readers. “Once those readers have seen what books have to offer, it becomes easier to get them to try another book, and another.”
Christopher Golden, the author of dozens of comics, novels and books for young adults, has been approached throughout the years to pen a video game tie-in. He turned them all down until Naughty Dog, the developer of the hit series Uncharted, asked him to write a book telling the continuing adventures of its hero, Nathan Drake. Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth, was published last year. Reactions, he says, varied from “people who said ‘I enjoyed reading this book, but I wish it had been more like a game,’ to people who said the exact opposite: ‘I loved this book. Reading [it] is exactly like playing the game.’
“I made an effort to include things that would have the tangible feeling of playing the game,” he adds, “but I made no effort to exclude things that wouldn’t.”
Video game developers are not only hiring authors to write spinoff novels, but to write the games themselves. For instance, Tom Bissell, who covers video games for publications ranging from Grantland to the New Yorker and whose book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, was published in 2010, was recently hired to script the next Gears of War.
“I don’t think that video games can get away with just having bulls— writing in them anymore,” says Scott C. Jones, a Vancouver-based writer and co-host of two popular video game shows: Electric Playground and Reviews on the Run. Likewise, Golden, who scripted two Buffy the Vampire Slayer video games back in the day, says that if you want to have a successful game, plot is something that can’t be ignored. “There was a tipping point, where the gaming companies realized that they needed to put just as much thought into the story as they did into the settings and into combat systems and all of that stuff.”
Gamers “have gotten older. We’ve gotten more sophisticated,” Jones says. “Everybody got to a point where we were fed up being fed these really half-hearted stories … These lame excuses to get games from the snow world to the desert world.
“They need to hire writers,” he continues. “They need to hire people who’ve read books. People who have some skills putting together a line of dialogue or a sentence. It makes a difference.”
As for a game getting it right, he points to Dishonored, developed by Arkane Studios and recently published by Bethesda Softworks, which is known for releasing games with narratives that wouldn’t be out of place in a university course on contemporary literature, such as Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls series. Dishonored, in which the player controls a revenge-seeking assassin through a city modelled after Victorian London, received rave reviews when it was released in October.
“It’s so mature and erudite and literary,” Jones says. “That’s what I expect from my games. That’s where I think all games [should] aspire to at this point.”
Austin Grossman wrote Dishonored. It should come as no surprise, then, that’s he an accomplished novelist, too — his debut novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, was published in 2007 (he’s also the twin brother of novelist and Time magazine’s books columnist Lev Grossman).
“It’s the most exciting medium that you can work in, because the medium changes every year,” he says on the phone from Irvine, Calif. “There’s a storytelling potential in video games, in interactive media, that is not well understood, and is not well-utilized. But we get to be the first people to try. You’re attacking problems that no one has solved. You feel like D.W. Griffith. You feel like you’re at the dawn of a medium.”
He’s been working in the medium since the early 1990s, and has worked on some of the most acclaimed games and franchises of the past 20 years, including Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and Thief: Deadly Shadows, the latter two both seen as precursors to Dishonored. For a long time, he concedes, story was not a priority among developers.
“I was the first person hired at [my] company who was there as a writer,” he says. “Typically just everybody pinch hit as a writer. Like, literally, their first choice would be whoever their dungeon master was.”
The writing was often awful, Grossman says, “and no one seemed to care.”
“I had a great deal of personal pride, or hubris, knocked out of me, because I was writing in what was basically a degraded medium,” he says. “No one cared what I wrote. I was hired and I wrote for six months before anybody even went to check what I was writing. They simply didn’t care. They just slammed it into the product and moved on.”
This wasn’t always the case. Some of the first games were, in a way, books. The text-based adventure games, or interactive fiction, of the 1970s and early ’80s were glorified Choose Your Own Adventure novels. The largest company, Infocom, even hired Douglas Adams to help design The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game. “Games” such as Zork or Trinity relied on second-person narration (“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door”) to transport the gamer into the text. In fact, Grossman’s next novel, due out in 2013, is called YOU, and explores the world of game development. It is one of several new novels paying homage to video game culture. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, published in 2011, is partly set in a massively multiplayer online game called OASIS. And even Salman Rushdie’s 2010 novel for young adults, Luka and the Fire of Life, was structured like a game. “There is, I think a worry that [games] may somehow supplant the world of story, the world of stoytelling and books,” he told me at the time.
Yet part of the reason a wave of writers hasn’t swamped the industry, says Grossman, is economics. A writer will make significantly more writing for film or television than video games. “The incentives aren’t there,” he says. Another is the clash of cultures. Most programmers, he says, don’t have a liberal arts education. “Are they going to see you as trying to unload a bunch of literary stuff onto them, when what they want is a cracking good story?”
“There’s a line developers have to walk, between presenting a really solid story and still making the experience a game,” agrees Dan Jolley, a writer of both novels and video games. “You can’t get so deep into the story that you forget you’re making an actual game that needs to be fun and engrossing to play. And yes, gamers do care about story, but if they get a good story embedded in a boring, clunky, [or] broken game, they’ll still feel ripped off, and rightly so. If you want pure story, you see a movie or read a book.”
But there are games that offer both. If you ask me what my favourite novel is, I’ll say Catch-22 or The Sun Also Rises. But, as a lapsed gamer, if you ask me for my favourite story, I’m just as likely to reply Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy III, games I played as a teenager I connected to just as strongly as any novel. Could “Press Start” be the new “Once upon a time?” Are video games the new novels?
“I think that they’re going to be,” Grossman says.
Still, he says, it’s a “very slow transition.” He thinks the aughts were a terrible decade for story in games, but is hopeful, with the rise of indie games, the upcoming decade is more promising. He characterizes the industry as only being “at the beginning of developing its own literary culture.” The novel, after all, didn’t hit its stride until the 18th century, it could be argued.
“It’s a really exciting new way to tell stories,” Jones says. “But even the most sophisticated games we have right now, like Mass Effect or Dishonored or the Fallout series — they’re really just cave paintings. They’re really still at the beginning of something bigger.”

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