Video Games, Books, and Meryl Streep
I recall sitting in my parents’ living room, watching a television personality interview actress Meryl Streep. It was not the type of program that my family and I would normally watch, but we were waiting for some gritty crime movie or another to begin and had flipped to the interview in the interim. Anyway, there was Ms. Streep with her perfectly sculpted blonde hair, in her usual sophisticated decorum. And here was the interviewer, a seemingly ancient man with a shiny pate.
“You’re known for having exquisite taste in movies. What do you think of all these superhero movies that are littering the cinemas, these days?” the interviewer asked (or something to that affect; it was many months ago).
Perfect, blonde Meryl, who hasn’t aged a day in decades laughed and proclaimed, “Well, I don’t watch those movies!” as if it were the funniest joke in the world.
Personally, I didn’t think that it was a very funny joke. Not even a moderately funny one. I sneered at that television set – veritably sneered at it – as if Streep and the old man could see the displeasure in my snarling teeth.
“Those” movies. She had practically spat the word, rolling her eyes as if the idea of such a dignified figure as herself taking in such drivel as Kick-Ass or Batman Begins was simply unthinkable. I felt as if Streep had just spit in my face, condemning everything that I was. It was as if my nerdom and I were not even worth her consideration, let alone her precious time. Worst of all was that Meryl admitted that she hadn’t seen any of these much abhorred pictures and simply dismissed them outright (disdain without investigation is not a virtue). As if this arrogant woman could begin to understand my adoration for Nightcrawler or how I wept when Peter Parker decided that he no longer wanted to be Spider-Man.
Silly me, I should have known better; like any nerd, I should be accustomed to this sort of derision from ‘the educated’. This over-willingness to dismiss all that we know and love without their even venturing a single, exalted toe into our world isn’t new. Hasn’t it plagued us since the beginning of time? Isn’t this just some mutation of that legendary popular/nerd squabble, in which I am the ill-dressed teenager, struggling to conceal my braces beneath my lips, and Ms. Streep is the burly, pigheaded jock who waits for me before the school bell? It’s as if she were holding me upside-down, shaking my meager lunch money from my pockets.
But Meryl Streep isn’t a mean high school football player – she’s a famous actress. And I’m not a 15-year-old brace-face (at least, not anymore); I’m an attractive, educated young woman. Meryl Streep doesn’t know me, and she doesn’t know you. In fact, I don’t think she knows the first thing about any of us.
The point that I am getting at is this: among academia, comic books are not regarded as literature. Neither are video games. They are collectively deemed not ‘worthy’ of serious scrutiny. I’m sure that any gamer can relate to the hurt and frustration that this sort of public, offhand dismissal brings. Aside from good-natured debates, it is somewhat difficult for me to separate myself from the things that I love, and insulting the academic merit of The Legend of Zelda or Spider-Man feels an awful lot like insulting my intelligence. Because there is another thing that Meryl Streep and her band of ‘too-good-for-yous’ don’t know about me, and it is that I also love something that they too very much covet: books. It is pretty unanimous that books are worthy of scrutiny – at least, the vast majority books (I’m looking at you, E.L. James). I propose an interesting notion: that I enjoy literature and video games for the same reasons, and that video games are literature in visual form.
I like to imagine that when these elderly provocateurs make their snide remarks about gamers, they are picturing children gathered around a television set playing Pong. This is not a pot-shot at age but at understanding. My mother – who is neither elderly nor a gamer – once saw a commercial for Uncharted 3 and remarked, “Wow, this is what video games look like now?” Like Meryl Streep who can’t be bothered with superhero movies, I’m inclined to believe that many of these criticisers haven’t a clue what they are criticising. Basing one’s opinion about video games on what one saw on consoles in the 80s, 90s, or even early 2000s is akin to reading a children’s alphabet book and deciding that ‘books don’t do anything for me.’ Video games are no longer primary-coloured pixels on a screen, people. They are carefully crafted, ultra-immersive worlds; we have come so far from 8-bit.
Considering these advances in visuals, it’s only natural to assume that the written and spoken aspect of video games has moved forward as well – this is true in both quality and complexity. In the age of Atari and Gameboy, many games conspicuously lacked storytelling elements, and it was up to the gamer to craft a story around characters’ actions, or to simply do without. With the advent of more complex games – such as the N64’s Zelda releases; the more dialogue dependent Final Fantasy titles; and the early manifestations of the Elder Scrolls series – gamers saw plot and character development become an integral component of a good game. It began to matter that the characters were memorable and dynamic and that the storylines were just as compelling as that year’s best blockbuster.
Today, writing a game is much more than just pumping out brief snippets of dialogue or designing challenging levels. There are elements of structure and tone to consider. There are sub-plots and uniting themes. Actually, it’s a lot like writing a novel. And playing a story-heavy game feels a lot like reading a novel.
If you believe that it is only the running and gunning, the loud noises and flashing lights that get the modern gamer’s heart pumping, you would be wrong. Granted, the proverbial chase still is and always will be a core aspect of gameplay, but it is far from the players’ only source of satisfaction. There is a great deal of ‘reading’ involved in completing a modern video game – and by ‘reading’, I do not mean the literal interpretation of words (though, there’s a lot of that, too). I mean the gathering of information and deliberation on said information. I mean the need to understand the events that are unfolding in a manner that is not entirely surface-level, to anticipate what will happen next. What I remember most about the games that have impressed me is not the action sequences, but the story-related thrills: the plot-twists, the worlds’ rich histories, the unmasking of the master villain. Most movies are not this complex; they do not allow for this type of viewer conjecture. There is a certain show-don’t-tell aspect to video games, and I have only ever experienced such excitement in front of my Xbox… or when immersed in a good book.
On modern gen systems, Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series take my entire last paragraph and run with it. I am absolutely confident in stating that the success of the Mass Effect series comes not from the gameplay mechanics but from the incredible amount of detail put into Commander Shepard’s world. The characters in Mass Effect are multi-dimensional and so absurdly human in their conversation and mannerisms. The plot is filled with twists and turns, and there is a certain nuance to the story’s delivery: a subtlety that is reminiscent of a book and not a Hollywood film.
Furthermore, games like Mass Effect trump movies in intellectual stimulation and emotional involvement because they put the player directly into Shepard’s world. You are not watching Shepard; you are Shepard, and you are creating his/her story. So far from a mere influence on how events unfold, you are the catalyst, and your ability to alter the story’s very course ensures that each player’s experience will be wholly unique – a reflection of you. You are not simply an onlooker; you are a piece of the art. You are not only reading; you are writing. A video game that allows me to play as me, by nature, moves me – both figuratively and literally. In Bethesda’s Fallout 3 or Skyrim, I am my own protagonist. I am rooting for myself. I care about the story, because it is mine. I carefully consider every option and learn everything that I possibly can about the world that I inhabit and the characters that aid me or seek to overthrow me. Naturally, I care very much whether I live or die.
Another thing that is so special about reading a book with a richly crafted world – say, The Lord of the Rings or a Tad William’s serial – is the intimacy between you and the author. There is always this notion that you are looking through a window onto the secret vista of a stranger’s dreams. These video games go one step further by placing you upon that vista. There, you are the visitor, and the only way to survive is to learn. It is not only a recreational pursuit but an intellectual one.
After all, what do we love about a good novel? I cannot speak for every self-professed bookworm, but I know what it is that I love. It is the story’s ability to move me, to make me think, and ultimately, to change me. I promise you, skeptics, that a good video game does indeed change you. It sticks with you as surely as any good novel. It will invade your thoughts, and you will reference it, tirelessly. You will have conversations about its philosophy, and you will wonder what each character felt as the story unfolded – what each character thought.
Dear Meryl Streep and constituents, there is a great deal of merit to superhero movies and the comic books on which they are based. I will vouch for both until I’m your age and beyond, because they have moved me. Some of them have even shaped me; I am a thing made up of various superheroes and their stories, and I am better for it. You see, Ms. Streep – and you, the bitter old man with the shiny pate, in your designer suit – when you profess to be ‘sophisticated’ and ‘intellectual’ and you make blanket remarks on behalf of the academia, it means that you have missed out on a very big, very well-kept secret: us nerds, we are the academia. And if you dismiss our elaborate fantasies and our fantastic worlds – all of their histories, their breathtaking landscapes, and their characters that can be at once as poetic as Hamlet and as discerning as Holmes – without bothering to investigate them first, then you are not wise or superior for it. On the contrary, you are missing out. You are turning up your noses and ignoring the literature of the future.
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