Video Games and the Legacy of Genre Fiction - djchan08 Blog - www.GameInformer.com
Switch Lights

The lights are on

Video Games and the Legacy of Genre Fiction

When most people think of the word "literature," their minds conjure up images of Shakespearean tragedy, of epic poetry, of large books about white whales and national revolutions, of the Romantics (Byron, Shelley), of the Victorians (Dickens, Eliot), and of modernists (Joyce, Hemingway, Woolf). Unfortunately, most also think of crippling boredom and tweed-clad professor types who talk ad nauseum about the cultural importance of these works and writers in front a group of people who would rather be somewhere else. I've been on all sides of the classroom--a rapt listener, an exhausted teacher, a bored student. This post, however, is not about the canon or instruction of English or American literature. Hell, it's not even about literature (that part is for context), but rather a discussion of genre and how it fits in with current video game trends.

Just as great artists like T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf were writing great works that would greatly influence and define early 20th century art, other writers churned out books as quickly as they could, forsaking linguistic complexity in favor of fast-paced plots, cheap laughs, or easy thrills. This tradition is called "genre writing," and it was often viewed as vulgar and amateurish by the high art literati--but it sold. The genres of mystery, adventure, vaudeville comedy, horror/gothic, and science fiction (still in its infancy) became established, and with them, so did the rules that governed each genre. For adventure, a group of men needed to explore a remote corner of the world, meet the natives, and reify the importance of civilization. In mysteries, the detective investigates his case with mathematical precision and dizzying intellect. A horror story worthy of H.P. Lovecraft needs a blend of psychological terror and supernatural influence. Genre fiction is comfortable, predictable, safe, and, above all else, profitable.

The influence of these generic formulas in the video game scene is more than evident. Gamers no exactly what they're getting into when they pre-order a science fiction, war epic, fantasy, adventure, or horror game. It's a brilliant marketing tool, and it's always effective. Just take a look at a few games' cover art juxtaposed with covers of novels from the same genre:

Adventure

Uncharted 3 cover art (2011)
One More Step, Mr. Hands from a 1911 edition of Stevenson's Treasure Island
Both Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Naught Dog's Uncharted 3 fit nicely into the adventure genre. Each involves a cast of rogues outside of their own countries and cultures, a fair bit a violence, and, of course treasure. The images, then, are noticeably similar, giving the consumer a quick look at the product. We can easily tell that these will contain the tropes of adventure fiction--violence, action, set pieces, etc--as well as key plot points (a plane crash and an encounter on the ship).
Horror

Resident Evil 2 American cover art (1998)

 

Stoker's Dracula book cover (1902)

Here, both covers achieve more in atmosphere than they do in plot--a hallmark of the horror genre. The character on the front of the book cover (presumably the titular count) evokes a threatening, and intensely gothic, feel. The same could be said of the game cover, though a bit more modernized: the source of fear looks directly at the viewer, intensifying the threat of danger. We know what we're getting into when we buy either of these products.

Mystery

Heavy Rain cover art (2010)

Dorothy Sayers' Clouds of Witness (1926)

I find this pair to be the most interesting of the three. Both contain an object in close proximity to blood. We know these objects will be of great importance to the overall plot, but what that connection is remains...well, a mystery. Mysteries and whodunits often involve a single item wanted by multiple people that is the central cause of the conflict--this object is often referred to as a MacGuffin. (Note: They're also called "plot coupons" by people who look down on formulaic writing) Here, the MacGuffins appear to be the focal points of the artworks, letting the viewer know that the plots revolve heavily around these objects.

Obviously these three examples do not entirely encapsulate all of gaming and genre fiction traditions into a set of rigid instructions. Indeed, one of the most interesting facets of genre writings is not how each work fits into its generic category, but rather how they deviate from the established paradigms. Even some of the most widely respected novelists of the 20th century worked within such paradigms to test their own experimental writings. Joyce's Ulysses, for example, is well known for (among other things) transforming one day in the mundane life of an Irishman into an exploration of language and literature worthy of an epic poem, while simultaneously interrogating the division between "high" and "low" art styles.
Also, that same Irishman masturbates in an episode
written in the style of contemporary woman's magazine.
Literature, folks.
I posit that video games often function in very much the same manner. A "good" video game challenges the constraints of its genre. Uncharted 3 addresses Nathan Drake's compulsion to complete his adventure even if it means the death of his partner, Sully. Resident Evil 2 asks the player to subject him/herself to the horrors of the game universe by employing controls that limit the onscreen character's mobility. Heavy Rain affords the player the opportunity to not follow Ethan Mars through the physical and psychological torments of the Origami Killer. These games play with genre convention in ways offer interpretive insight into the inner workings of gameplay and narrative.

My goal is a series of posts that discusses games (hopefully with help from fellow community members) about how games employ and challenge the paradigms of their respective genres. Complicating the matter, however, is the fact that gaming culture has invented its own system of classification, lumping games into categories of first-person shooter, role-playing game, survival-horror, third-person shooter, dungeon crawler, sports simulator, fighting, etc. Looking at games from the perspective of generic convention reveals how they--just like novels, films, dramas, and poetry--toy with such restraints, often testing the limits established archetypes. Video games have become one of the most culturally important avenues of interrogation of contemporary values, and writing about their connections to genre fiction can make more evident the importance of adhering to and breaking from paradigms. I hope you check back soon to read about and discuss this topic.

Cheers,

--David
comments