READING AND PLAYING
Reading a book is a complex game of deciphering; there are rules, and there are codes. Reading a book is a posture, a movement. Movement of the hands, movement of the eyes. This is also the case when playing video games, a performative interaction is created.
I thought that questioning our approach to literature in the light of video games and questioning our approach to video games in the light of literature could be nothing but beneficial for both media. There is always something to learn at the border, and here, we are clearly in front of an uncharted territory of possibilities of inter-disciplinary communication.
I shall, with this goal in mind, investigate the common ground between video games and literature; that is to say, digital interactive literature, and narrative video games— playful ways of readings, and literary ways of playing. I decided to frame my questions within the Gothic genre, and more specifically within the occurrences of the ludic in the American Gothic genre.
THE CONSPIRACY OF GOTHIC FICTION
It is the case of most literature, but the American Gothic, especially in the form of the short story, has a certain propensity to offer multiple readings, multiple interpretations. In the shadows, between the many layers of the text, there is room for the reader to investigate, as a detective in a crime adventure game: this is the conspiracy of Gothic fiction. This admission of the reader into the story questions the link between the arts and the physical reaction of the player, reader, or spectator.
In each part of “The Gothic Reading Game”, we are going to explore the links between a narrative videogame and a short story. This first article, will be dedicated to Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016), written by Adam Hines and “The Tale-Tell Heart” (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe. The two works I chose for the second part are Night in The Woods (Infinite Fall, 2017), whose story is co-written by Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry and “Somnambulism” (1799) by Charles Brockden Brown.
PLURALITY. TEXT AND HYPERTEXT, LITERATURE AND VIDEO GAMES
Video games are often associated to cinema because of their common emphasis on the camera, movement, and their propensity to be considered as Gesamtkunstwerks – total works of art. However, at first glance, it is harder to see the formal kinship between literature and video games, especially with the traditional book format. Yet, this kinship does exist, and is more visible, noticeable, when we look at digital fiction and hypertexts.
Hypertexts are non-sequential, exploratory, mostly digital, and inter-connected texts which place emphasis on experience. This experience, often, does not require to be exhaustive, and loses its intended effect if printed on paper (even though the concept of the hypertext can evolve outside of modern technology in some cases). In fiction, the multiple paths principle creates plural readings: it can be a realist intent of exhausting the subject of the story with repetitions and different points of view; it can also be a way of creating parallel, incoherent branching in order to introduce a pluralism of possible interpretations. We are therefore facing a way of reading which is fragmented, and non-linear. It is writing as a network, as a web, where every reading is different, and the unique reading is dismissed.
POE AND FRAGMENTATION
The first example that comes to my mind when thinking about texts using fragmentation to call for multiple readings in the American Gothic corpus is the work of Edgar Allan Poe. By exploring the theme of madness in his short stories, he mimetically creates fragmented texts which can be read as hypertexts.
In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator presents a schizophrenic language to the reader, which aims at contaminating the latter, in order to create, in his or her mind, multiple, incoherent, exclusive readings of the same story. Indeed, in this short story, the narrator/protagonist tries to convince someone (themselves/the reader/the law?) that their decision of killing an old man was totally rational. This hazy narrative offers paths of interpretation that can lead the reader to different outcomes, in the same way a hypertext is build.
THE MOMENTUM OF REPETITION
The very form of the short story is an invitation to return to the text, as it is made easier by the reduced length. As Roland Barthes puts it in S/Z, reading implies returning to the text right away, in order to experience it as a drug, and uncover the text in its plurality. For Barthes, again, playing is the return of the other, a very uncanny concept indeed: Poe crafted a text which invites the reader to read again and find a new text in something already read, something familiar. The return to the text is thus uncanny: we can say that the form adds a layer of uneasiness to the narrative, which was already horrific through the first-person focalisation that puts the reader in the shoes of a mad murderer. Reading and re-reading Poe makes the (hyper)text quiver, the same way the player enters mazes whose walls are ever-changing in the series of video games labelled “mystery dungeons.”
FAMILIARITY TURNS THE TEXT INTO A PLAYGROUND
In cases like “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the text becomes a playground for the reader. According to Ian Bogost, any object can become a playground, every action can be considered as a game in life: going to the mall, working, eating, etc. The player does not make up the game, they (re)search in objects they already know, in the repetition of the routine of everyday life, structures with which one can play. Bogost does not specifically talk about literature (nor video games), but about the world, and life in general, our physical space. We are here, on the other hand, focused on the object “literature,” and with this in mind, we can see a text as a space of its own, where the godly figure is the author, and the reader/player re-searches, again and again, something new, something fun. According to Bogost, fun is anything new that emanates through playing a game: in the case of literature, the emergence of new meanings through re-reading the same text is the incentive (labelled as “fun”) that pushes us to read.
OXENFREE. WHAT LIES BENEATH THE ISLAND.
Oxenfree is a narrative video game that interestingly explores these notions of playground and repetition in reading. The story told in this game is about a group of high schoolers going to an almost-abandoned city on an island to have a party. Once they are there, they drink, and play a game of truth or dare. So far, it is a rather conventional adolescent narrative, but, by using an old radio, the protagonist, Alex, opens up a mysterious threshold in a haunted cave that teleports her. She wakes up next to her recently-met step brother, who came to the party. They then go on exploring the island in order to rescue Alex’s three friends and find out more about the mysterious thresholds.
Oxenfree’s gameplay is quite restricted: Alex can move from left to right in beautiful panels representing the different parts of the island; she can use her radio to learn more about the world, solve inter-dimensional mysteries, open radio-frequency locked doors, or listen to music; also, she often talks with her friends when they are following her (the player has to select one of the three answers they are offered, if they do not select anything, Alex stays quiet).
The dialogue is mainly used to flesh out the characters. But the choice between four options during dialogue (3 different answers or silence) create a narrative hypertext, the complete access to which is almost impossible. Just like the past of the island, the hypertext is hidden under multiple layers of interface, a dubbing, and is often only accessible if the player moves Alex to the right place (some dialogues can indeed be missed by the player in a playthrough). Furthermore, the player only has a limited time to choose the answer they want, and because the text is dubbed (by default without subtitles in English), the player will have to interrupt Alex’s friends’ sentences in order to utter the answer they desire, as one would do in an actual conversation. In the process, the player-reader/listener shall not experience little fragments of the preformatted text. These instances of interaction in micro-narration are accompanied by phenomena of interactive macro-narration (e.g. which friend should Alex save first?) which influence irreversibly the story experienced by the player (and again makes them miss narrative paths).
MARGINALITY AND RESTRICTIONS
But contrary to a game book which offers marginal ways of reading that do not respect the rules of the game (e.g. reading all the outcome of a situation before making a decision), Oxenfree is a video game, and in a videogame, the rules are contained in the software. Without hacking the game, the player cannot go back, and is stuck with his or her decisions. The player-reader is trapped in the chronological experience of a game, contrary to the reader-player, who can challenge chronology in his readings. Alternative ways of playing exist, though, like the “slow play” or the “speed run,” but as their name suggests, they only affect how the game is paced, not its chronology.
If we want to experience, as Barthes said, the “mythical” temporality of the narrative game, take it out of the chronological temporality the video game medium traps ourselves into by not letting us go back, we have to replay, again and again the same game. And this is because of this repetition that Oxenfree becomes truly interesting: the story itself goes on this direction in a self-reflective way. And it does it thanks to elements it borrows from the Gothic.
THE GOTHIC METALEPSIS
The island in which the story takes place is a ruin: the ruin of a tourist resort, built over a military fort, itself built over a mining complex. The surface of the land is furrowed by the spectral marks of the past. An old murdered lady hid notes everywhere about the mystery surrounding the island, slowly leading us to discover that this mystery is linked to a tragic incident involving a nuclear submarine which was sunk by the Japanese next to the island during World War II, the passengers of which were forever lost. The game’s lore is organised in layers of perception, and in order to see everything, playing the game multiple times is mandatory.
The lost souls on this island interfere with radio programs and create gates towards alternate parallel dimensions in which Alex and her friends are trapped. Even if Alex saves everyone, at the end of the story, the game will glitch in a self-reflecting way, sending back the player to the beginning of the game, where they can restart a playthrough, once again, and from the beginning, in order to learn more about the story. The players are themselves trapped in the story, they experience a gothic metalepsis: the curse goes out of the screen and infects the player, the same way the owner of a VHS of the Japanese horror movie Ring (リング) by Hideo Nakata is contaminated after watching the film (the movie being about, and showing a cursed videotape circulating and killing whoever watches it).
THE MONSTER HIDDEN IN THE HYPERTEXT
Narrative designers thus can, through the addition of unfamiliarity within the boundaries of an already-played, familiar hypertext “infuse a spark of being” between the finger of the player and the plastic texture of the joystick. By using old conventions of the Gothic genre, we are able to release something horrific that will linger longer than a jump scare, something that shall either break the screen or absorb the player within.