LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Video Games; or, Literary Merit
It is a truth universally acknowledged that video games are a form of media. Entertainment media, but media nonetheless. They share the stage with books, films, and plays. And yet, why are video games not being talked about in-depth? Different forms of media are analysed and given attention in academia. Why not video games?
Is it a problem with the games themselves? Or is it a problem with the fact that they’re games?
Video games are the black sheep of literary analysis. Techniques that used to limit themselves to different kinds of texts have been extended to other media such as cinema or theater. It was a natural progression: films and plays rely on written scripts, so they could be analysed through the lens of literature. But so do video games, so why aren’t they analysed to the same degree as films, plays, or books? Video games are another medium to express ideas. Look, for example, at Undertale or Doki Doki Literature Club, games that look beyond the scope and expectations of the genres they adopt.
Undertale, developed by Toby Fox—and thus called an “independent” or “indie” game—is a Role-Playing Game (RPG) that puts the player in control of Frisk, a human kid who fell from the surface to the underground, where Monsters live, and must find a way to get back home.
Most RPGs with a premise like Undertale would have the player use a weapon to kill all the Monsters that stand between the player and a way back home. Undertale took this aspect of the genre and flipped it. It is the RPG where “you don’t have to kill anyone,” according to the game’s website. Undertale gives the player the choice to be violent or non-violent, and judges the player based on how much violence he or she used.
Screenshot from Undertale.
Courtesy of undertale.com.
Undertale’s premise alone makes it an achievement of the medium in that it takes inspiration—and quotes through game mechanics—from games that came before it and flips the expectations of the genre by being an RPG where nobody has to die. Books and films and plays that do the same thing are analysed ad nauseam in academia, so why not video games?
Is it because Undertale stands as an exception?
Look at Doki Doki Literature Club, another indie game by Team Salvato, which is not an RPG, but rather a dating simulator. Like Undertale, it flips a fundamental part of the genre to deliver a message.
Dating simulators are text-based games that give the player two main choices: which character to date and what line of dialogue to say. They are not built to be deep, nor to pose a challenge to the player. After the player chooses someone to date, he (in very rare instances, she) will be given a choice of dialogue options, one of which will scream “This is the right thing to say,” while the others will be written to be the wrong choice.
Doki Doki Literature Club takes this idea and, given its literature club setting—in good dating simulator fashion, it is a club comprised of four girls and the player—turns the dialogue into a “poem.” The player is given a collection of words to “write a poem,” and next to the list of words, there are the three girls available to the player for dating. Whenever a word is picked, one of the girls will jump, signifying “progress” with said girl. It is a system that is easy to cheat, as one of the girls likes dark and long words, another likes cute and animal words, and another likes short and simple words.
It is also a system based on a choice that doesn’t matter. Regardless of the player’s choice, the game always progresses to the same end: a transformation into a horror game where all the player’s agency to choose is taken away. The player is forced to see and experience the horror, with no choice to avoid it other than by abandoning the game. The dissonance of a horrifying game with the aesthetics of an anime dating simulator creates a narrative style that unsettles the player.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.”
Apart from these flips to the genre and to the games from which it draws inspiration, Doki Doki Literature Club flips the expectation of the medium itself. Before the game transforms into a horror game, it uses every design aspect to make the player feel that there is something wrong with the game. The background music is off-key at times, the characters break the fourth wall by calling out a joke that doesn’t work in translation (even though the game is in English and isn’t translated from any other language), and characters reference everything that happens in the horror part of the game through obscure dialogue. After it transforms into a horror game, it uses everything it established in the non-horror part of the game and flips it. Characters sometimes stand in front of the dialogue box instead of behind it, images that took up the entire screen turn into covers for jump scares once the player clicks away, and the game starts using “glitches,” or coding mistakes, to unsettle the player. The music plays off-beat and distorts, backgrounds start twisting, character designs start garbling up, dialogues appear in different fonts or are a random string of characters.
At one point, the game requires the player to dig through the game’s files and delete one of the character files to progress through the game. It gamifies the logic of computers beyond the game.
Doki Doki Literature Club is a small game, but one that uses everything at its disposal to create and distort the narrative of what comprises a “game.” So why is it not treated in academia like all the novels, films, or plays that did the exact same thing?
We need to look beyond what has been established and start seeing video games for what they are: another medium to develop ideas.
Comp Lit Prof. Eric Hayot teaches an undergraduate course on video games at Penn State that has enrollment in the hundreds every term, and he has written eloquently about the need for us to take a more expansive view of what are “legitimate” media to study as we confront a changing mediascape. Thank you to the author here for bringing our collective attentions to that important and urgent conversation.