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Thursday, 20 January 2022

Has gaming got a secret storytelling sauce?

You know those get-to-know meetings where everybody is invited to say a little bit about who they are. Like when the heroes exchange boasts in the Trojan War, only without the spear-throwing as a chaser. When I mention that I’m a game designer as well as a writer, a publisher or a network exec will nod and say, ‘Yes, that’s what we like about your writing. The gaming feel.’

I expect Michelangelo heard the same sort of thing. ‘What we love about your painting, Mike, is the sculptural look.’ And a compliment is a compliment. You don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, even when it’s a camel. But it irks because it’s too facile to be true or even useful. When you’re a writer, everything that interests you feeds into your work. Whatever quality those network execs think they’re seeing, it’s as likely that I got it from reading Elric of Melniboné as from playing The Witcher.

Why it matters: publishers and old TV networks alike are looking at their shrinking audience and, perceiving that young people especially are eagerly consuming games, they feel sure that an injection from those glands could surely perk up their own medium.

Is that true? When I was getting started as a writer, back in the mid-'80s, all the publishers wanted Fighting Fantasy style gamebooks. Those went a long way beyond mixing a game sensibility (whatever that is) into the narrative. They were stories with gameplay. And on one level it was a massive success, but only in the same way that the US surge in Iraq was a massive success. Reluctant readers, especially boys, took to the books in their millions. But fast forward 35 years and I don’t think you’ll find many of them became regular readers. If it didn’t have a tunnel with an orc at the end they could kill, they just weren’t interested.

Should we worry? After all, most people are not regular readers. It can be a misperception to see all those kids’ faces wide-eyed and screen-lit and to think, gosh, if we could just bottle that gaming juice we’d soon have them just as addicted to books.
Back in the late sixties, what got me and another 400,000 kids out of bed without needing to be called twice was the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. You think my parents and teachers approved? ‘Why can’t you read proper books?’ they asked. The answer, of course, is that it’s not either/or. Maybe most of those other Spidey fans didn’t become regular readers in later life. Others did. Some became writers and game designers and now rarely put in a day’s work that doesn’t owe something to Stan Lee’s storytelling. We didn’t look at the page and see a 3 by 3 panel grid, or four-colour pictures with word balloons. We saw how original characters, sparkling humour, a gazillion personal problems, and a spectacular fight scene or two added up to a don’t-miss monthly saga.

When a medium like games or comic books whips up such a rapture of enthusiasm, naturally we look for lessons we should be learning. Yet tread carefully on these deceptive sands. It’s not necessarily about grafting gameplay into novels. Nor is anything gained by mere apery, such as renaming chapters ‘levels’. You could sell truckloads of books, after all, if you made them in the shape of a football somebody could kick around a park. Game elements, when only sutured onto other media like an experiment by Dr Moreau, have their limits.

The really valuable takeaways here require us to dig deeper. When Quentin Tarantino brought a little grindhouse vibe to CSI with his episode ‘Grave Danger’, the show’s producers acknowledged that he’d jolted them back to the realization, half forgotten after five seasons, that their stories needed to grab and excite the audience, not just fill an hour’s gap in their lives. A decade and half ago, Russell T Davies regenerated Doctor Who with a transfusion of soap opera sensibility which relegated the SF plot shenanigans almost to MacGuffins in order to foreground the characters’ personal journey. Opinions remain divided, but there’s no denying that it gave a direction to a show that seemed to have nowhere left to go.

Putting the ‘pop’ back into art is a trick that goes back a long way before one pixel dashed across a screen to devour another. Patricia Highsmith understood the same affect of compulsion: writing emotionally on the edge of your seat so as to put the reader on theirs. Dickens grabs you by the lapels; even his narrative prose has the vim and urgency of the spoken word. Coleridge too: ‘There was a ship...’ I defy you to stop there and start texting. Or how about three witches, a blasted heath, and a bloody man – you’re not going to be popping off to the loo for the next couple of hours, are you? And the Bard couldn’t have picked up those tricks from the games industry. Gadzooks, they’d only just invented cricket.

How do we make people want to read? Bring them up in a household full of books, or (next best) with free access to books. But also recognize that the human race reinvents itself. That’s its trademark turn. So we could ask, why aren’t the youth of today painting mammoths on the walls of caves? Why aren’t they going to the opera? Where are the Oscars for epic poetry?

Humans love stories, and we always will, but media evolve, speciate and go extinct. And so it goes.

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