Escapism. Through whatever medium we use, we are all searching for that elusive experience that takes us elsewhere; that state of mind in which we aren’t concerned about our money problems, our painful lack (or disturbing presence) of a significant other, or whatever war or natural disaster is happening in whatever part of the world. Escapism isn’t about avoiding our problems; it’s about taking a coffee break from the flickering fluorescent cubicle of our lives to go destroy the One Ring or rescue the princess of our choice. The media we choose are different- books, movies, video games- but the effect they have on our psyche is the same. Whether we’ve obtained the hookshot and escaped the dungeon or finally discovered why the time traveler’s daughter was so shocked to see him, we can then hit save or dog-ear the page and return to entering purchase orders or generating arbitrary web content or answering phones with a new sense of calm vigor- that little euphoria that stays with us for a bit after returning from the world of power-ups to the world of death and taxes.
And yet it’s about more than just escaping. Inevitable in the midst of our self-medicating entertainment consumption is revelation and wonder. We are inspired by the courage of the hero, repulsed by the corruption of the villain. We see our world through new eyes and we make little resolutions about ourselves and how we aim to live and to treat others.
The medium that has always “done it” for me is books. I have been a bookworm since before I started school. There was no better feeling than boarding the schoolbus with a backpack bulging with books fresh from the library- whole worlds to explore in those few precious hours that were mine and mine alone. Things haven’t changed all that much now that I got my English degree and sit at a desk all day doing something entirely separate from literature and writing. I still love to escape!
It wasn’t until I met my husband that I realized that books weren’t the only medium that provided both escape and a genuinely literary, world-altering experience. I had played video games growing up- mostly SNES classics such as Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario World, and I absolutely KILLED at Yoshi’s Island- but had never viewed them as anything other than pure brain-melting entertainment. Then along comes Chris, half of whose college essays were on the deeper aspects of video games- story and theme and psychology – and a whole new world is opened up in which to explore the marriage of escapism and analytical thought. And to kill bad guys.
As his list of video games for me to play grows longer and longer (and since you asked, I’m working on Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before I go back and attempt to beat Chrono Trigger once and for all), we find ourselves discussing video games (his passion) and books (my passion) and where the two converge. The days of the literary type shaking their head reprovingly at such a “lesser” art form are waning fast. Thanks to the accessible-yet-analytical work of people like our friends over at Extra Credits, video games are being recognized as the art form that they are.
Now that we are recognizing them as art, what do video games have in common with another more widely accepted art form: books? What do they have in common, and how are they different? Can an English major such as myself who feeds on good literature find something of equal value in the land of Hyrule?
To answer that question we have to look at how books and video games are different and how they are alike. While the player of a video game takes a much more active role in watching the story unfold than does the reader of a story, the fact remains that neither reader nor player has full control. There are video games where your choices change the outcome of the story, but that’s the same as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, isn’t it? And I think we like that about story: while we may roll our eyes or plead or yell at the characters, we like to watch them take action, reap benefits or consequences, and then ride off into the sunset or die a gory death. Throw some interesting dialogue in there and we’ve got ourselves a satisfying experience.
If video games and books are alike in their ability to communicate a good story, they are very different in their method of delivery. One reason I love books so very much is that they let my imagination do a lot of the leg work. The author describes the setting as they see fit, and it takes shape in my mind according to my own preferences and experiences. The world becomes my world, the characters my characters, because the author has given them existence, but my mind has given them life. I hate the villains and love the protagonists that much more. Through the use of my imagination I am allowed a passive sort of involvement in the story. I can make no changes to the story being told, but the way that I experience the story is vastly different from the way anyone else experiences it because I’m me.
Video games are a visual experience crafted entirely by someone else- we are missing that aspect of personal involvement that comes from imagining the visuals ourselves. However, that particular aspect is replaced by one’s ability to control the movements of the characters. While reading a book you imagine the world and see it in your mind’s eye and then watch passively as the characters move about in the space you’ve imagined. While playing a video game, on the other hand, you are presented with a complete world which you view passively- nothing will cause the villain’s dark castle to look like anything but the dark castle that it is- but the characters cannot take one step without your thumb on the joystick. In both cases our role in the creation of the world is little more than imaginary, but both require our involvement in order for the story to mean anything at all. What good is a vivid description if no one reads it and imagines it in their mind’s eye? What good are controllable characters if they are left standing idly about without someone to pick up the controller?
Is there something to be said for the particular types of people who enjoy one medium over the other? Do gamers prefer a more active role in the story? Do they feel a more constant need to be in control of a given situation? Do they gain a deep-seated psychological satisfaction from controlling whether a character lives or dies? Perhaps. Or perhaps they just like playing games. Personally, I typically prefer books because books were my first love. But there are some video games that I also really love (I’m not kidding when I say I KILL at Yoshi’s Island. 100% completion anybody? Do you have any idea how difficult that is?!) and I have been known to choose a SNES game over a thick novel on a Friday night (and will ALWAYS choose one of the two over “going out”, which is a preference that I think many avid readers and gamers will identify with). Maybe we shouldn’t analyze video games too closely- and yet the fact that we could must say something about how similar to books they really are. A medium has some staying power when it provides incredible entertainment value while also offering deeper intellectual satisfaction to anyone willing to reach for it.
Having been an English major, I could probably write another ten pages on this subject, but who wants to read that? I want to know what YOU think. Do you have a good example of a video game based on a book that just works? What book do you think would translate well to a video game? Which do you prefer? Why? Let us know in the comments! As for me, I have to go choose between A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and A Link to the Past. I have a feeling I know who is going to win this time…
Sharayah is the owner of independent bookstore Linus & Bubba Books, where you can find more of her opinions as well as book reviews and other fun stuff.