Once Upon A Time

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GameCore is CBSNews.com's video game column, written by William Vitka.


Human beings are storytellers. It is part of our genetic makeup. From cave paintings to mind-numbing advertisements and the mental catheter that is television, tales are told.

In fact, we cannot help but tell stories. Simple conversations resulting from simple questions like, "How was your day" provoke stories. Since their inception as grunts and gurgles to paintings and refined literature, they've come a long way and across numerous media.

We are compulsive storytellers, spending millions of dollars and many years of our lives creating new ways of sharing those narratives. Whole industries have been birthed through the desire to tell stories.

It can be argued, then, that video games are our latest and most immersive storytelling vehicles yet. As such, where is our great video game "literature"? More to the point: Will video games ever have their "Moby Dick" or "Citizen Kane"?

"My first response is to ask whether the analogy is the right one," Henry Jenkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told me. "If the question is, 'Will video games become a serious art form in their own right?' I think the answer is inevitably yes. Whether the analogy is to literature or to dance or to cinema or theater or any number of other media, it's hard to know what the right approximation is. In a way, to frame the question that way is like saying, 'Will cinema become theater?'

"We have to say that there are things that theater does that cinema never would do; there are things that cinema does that theater could never do. At the end of the day, we don't look at every movie we see and say, 'that wasn't as good as the play.' The problem is whenever you're in a new medium, the first attempt is to begin to say, 'does it look like X?' Because that's the vocabulary we have."

For all their advantages, video games don't allow for stories to be told in the traditional manner. The player is, by definition, not the same as the reader of a story. The player is the catalyst for the events in the game. He is not passive.

"It doesn't mean that they can't generate aesthetically and socially meaningful experiences which communicate complex ideas in a rich way," says Jenkins. "So, if we take that as our definition of art, then, in fact, I think games are already there and will get deeper and deeper as they go along."

But Jenkins also points out that rigid story arcs and predetermined outcomes belie the true nature of video games.

"Some of the directions that video games are moving in will look more and more like literature. If you take a game like Final Fantasy, you are certainly still in the trajectory of at least really good genre literature. Some of the things video games are going to do are what literature has long wanted to do," Jenkins says.

If we take Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" (the Russian epic that reconstructs Napoleon's invasion of Russia and its turning point at Borodino) as an example, Jenkins says that it is as if Tolstoy desperately wanted to be game designer Will Wright or Sid Meier. Tolstoy wanted a medium that allowed him to simulate this event and then rearrange the pieces to see what the outcome would be. He was looking for a way out of the static narrative.

Jenkins elaborates, "The last hundred pages [of "War and Peace"] is this essay that Tolstoy wrote, saying 'if the Russians had done this differently, then this would have been the result and if the French had done this differently then this would have been the result.' "It's not hard to look at 'War and Peace' and say that this wanted to be a video game.

"Could a game be as good a work as 'War and Peace'? It might be a better work than 'War and Peace'," argues Jenkins.

  • William Vitka

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