Instructor Carolyn Jong
English 255B – Video Games and/as Literature
3 February 2017
Playing Versus Telling
Eddo Stern writes in his essay “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games” that backstories to video games are redundant. He argues that the narrative from playing the game itself is sufficient, and that there is little interest for the player to engage in whatever text was provided along with the manual. I believe it’s important for game developers to have a backstory in mind when designing their games, but I agree with Stern that it is not necessary for them to include it in print when shipping the game. In the rare cases where I bothered to read the, I found that it never told me anything I didn’t already know from playing the game itself. Video games have the powerful ability to tell us the story not just with cut scenes, but through the gameplay itself.
The adage “show, don’t tell” applies very well to video games. You can be told that elderly people move at a slow pace, that their days are very boring and that they often feel depressed because most of the people they know have passed away, or you could play The Graveyard by Tale of Tales. Playing this elderly woman gives you exactly the sense of how painful it can be to move around when you’re so old. You also get the sense of the loneliness, and of how close you are to death’s door. Playing through this very short game is a more effective way of sharing this message than simply reading about it.
The same can be said about the game Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier. It’s easy to think of the life of a cart salesperson as easy: simply show up every day and sell your wares, but after one hour of playing this game, I hadn’t even managed to buy the cart… I had difficulty figuring out where I could purchase it, and when I did, I was told I needed to get a permit from the city, which took longer than what time I had left to play the game. I felt stressed out when playing because I only had a limited amount of time before a court hearing to decide custody of my in-game daughter. Playing this video game lets the you feel the hardships first hand. Reading an article about the life of a street vendor wouldn’t be as effective.
I’ve played through the Mass Effect series more often than I can count, but only on my last playthrough did I choose to play as a female Shepard (the main character). Everything is the same about the game, whether you play it as a male or female character, except for some dialogs. As a feminist, I’ve read countless times already the difficulties women face in their everyday lives, but being told about it still didn’t prepare me to face a particular situation in the game. My character being a commanding officer, I expect NPCs to treat her with respect, but this one man in a bar whom I had to interrogate initiates the conversation by—forgive the expression—treating me like a piece of ass. I felt insulted and angry that he would talk to me—well, my character—this way, because the image he was painting of me was not at all the one I had of myself. Female Shepard is every bit as strong, intelligent and authoritative as male Shepard, and I felt this great injustice that I should be treated this way. I felt dirty. Most troubling to me was that the game didn’t give me the option to punch the drunkard in the face. I had to swallow my pride and continue with the conversation, which, perhaps, is most accurate of the reality women live with each day. Any woman who talks back at man catcalling her is usually dismissed as crazy. So once again, living through this experience in a video game lets me better understand the situation that women face all the time, more so than just reading articles about it.
Stern, Eddo. ” A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games.” In Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, ed. Frans Mayra. Tampre University Press, 2002.
Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011).
Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007).
The Graveyard (Tale of Tales, 2008).