On to the next level: why novelists now write video games

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Forget Pac-Man and Mario. A growing number of writers are making literary art in the gaming world

When the great publisher George Weidenfeld, who died earlier this year, wanted to chat up a woman, he had one line that he could always rely on. “Have you ever thought of writing a book?” he would ask. “I believe you would write a very good book.” In the past, video games wouldn’t have had that sort of cachet. Yet as the industry booms and the narrative possibilities become infinite, video-game writers are becoming leaders of the creative writing world.

Gaming has come a long way since the days of Pac-Man. We are in a golden age of the video game. From an economic perspective they have been outperforming other creative industries for years: the action-adventure game Grand Theft Auto V broke records in 2013 when it reached $800 million in sales on its first day of release. By day three, it had surpassed $1 billion.

Video: the rise of literary gaming

The financial website The Motley Fool put that figure in perspective: at that point the global music industry was taking less than $1.4 billion in record and song sales each month; the blockbuster of that summer, Iron Man 3, brought in $372 million in its first weekend. GTA obliterated them.

That’s one side of the story, but as well as harvesting mega profits, the video game industry is nurturing some of the best creative writing talent. It is telling stories that have become increasingly sophisticated, featuring complex plots, moral dilemmas and unforgettable characters.

In fact the novel can seem rather limited after spending an hour speaking to James Swallow. Swallow, who was part of the team behind the Bafta award-shortlisted game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, also sits at the intersection between video-game narration and novel-writing. His latest literary work is a speculative thriller called Nomad that tackles technology and terrorism. It was inspired by conversations he had with game developers.

“A lot of people think games are for juvenile, nerdy, pimply teenage boys in their bedroom,” he says. “People think they are just toys and not a legitimate way to express a craft or art in a sensible and intelligent way. That prejudice is slipping away now.”

The appeal of the projects that Swallow works on is that each is different. “It’s an embarrassment of riches for a writer: there is so much you can play with. You might be developing a character or a world or working on a particular side story or the main narrative. What’s not to like?” What’s more, the possibilities for the ways in which stories can be told are endless: “There is a phrase I’m fond of trotting out, by the sci-fi writer William Gibson: there are no maps for these territories.”

The teams involved on these big games are akin to those you would find on any major television series. A high-budget game such as Call of Duty will have a large team of writers and an 80 to 90-hour script. Swallow has worked on several TV series including Star Trek: Voyager and sees similarities in the craft.

“If you look at the American model of how TV is made, you have the show runner in the writers’ room, you break it up into individual episodes and you’ll have one writer creating a TV episode and four or five people in the room suggesting ideas. Game narrative has something similar to that. You’ve got the ongoing elements, the acts of the story, for example, so someone will work on the core narrative, someone else on the side quests or subplots. And you need to have coherence.” There is good — and regular — money to be earned by writers who get past the bottom rungs of the industry.

In 2010, the American critic Roger Ebert drew a snooty distinction between video games and art. He argued that the ultimate goal of video games was to get a high score and win the game — art cannot be won. “Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an artform,” he said. There are no games, he claimed, that were worthy of comparison with the great poets, film-makers, novelists, painters or composers. The problem was that he hadn’t played games. The current generation of video game writers are now proving his theoretical arguments wrong.

Naomi Alderman is one of the growing number of writers who straddle the mediums. “There are certain things an interactive game can do better than a novel or memoir,” says Alderman, who has written several literary novels, including the award-winning Disobedience (2006), as well as being the lead writer behind Zombies, Run! and Perplex City, an alternative-reality game.

“One of the things a game can do better is represent choice,” says Alderman. “Choice is a real feature of life. We know that sometimes in our lives we face hard choices and actually it does matter which path we take. We all have that Sliding Doors feeling that small choices might have ended up making a big difference. In a linear narrative, there isn’t really a good way to represent that ‘possibility space’ of human lives, but games are the perfect medium for telling stories about the real, lasting impact that our free will and our decisions have on our lives.”

“Whether it’s writing novels or games, words are your tools and you must use them well to achieve the desired effect,” says Richard Dansky, who writes for Ubisoft, the major video game developer behind Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell games. It gets better than “It’s a-me! Mario!” If there were an Oxford Dictionary of Games Quotations, among them would be such philosophical lines as “The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world,” from the scientific thriller Half-Life and “Not only does God play dice, the dice are loaded,” from Sid Meier’s futuristic epic Alpha Centauri.

That Dragon, Cancer was written by Ryan and Amy Green and based on their son’s experience with terminal cancer

Nor is it all about guns, cars or dystopian sci-fi futures. Dansky picks out That Dragon, Cancer, which was released earlier this year by Ryan and Amy Green. This game was based on their son’s experience with terminal cancer. The couple chose not to write a memoir but to create an interactive experience that would remind them of what they had been through.

Joel Green had cancer diagnosed when he was a year old and he died aged five. His parents created the game to explore their loss, grief, hope and love through sharing their experience, from being told that Joel will not live to their attempts to comfort a distressed and dehydrated son in a hospital room. Wired magazine called it the “most profound video game ever”. Ryan Green said: “At best, it’s an echo of what it was like to be with him. I wish I could have encoded what it was like to be with him, so I could revisit that.”

Dansky also picks out Papers, Please (2013), which “raises questions you’re thinking about long after you finished playing it. It’s where you’re essentially playing the border crossing guard and you’re responsible for deciding who gets in and who doesn’t. The game starts out deceptively simple then it starts asking you questions: OK, there’s someone here who doesn’t have the right papers but their entire family has already crossed the border. Are you going to fudge things to get them in? It starts layering in these incredibly complex moral decisions.”

The video game world is young but the influence it has had on art and culture from first-person thrillers to immersive theatre is clear. Rhianna Pratchett (the daughter of Terry), who worked on Tomb Raider, sees memoir as a growing trend: “We’re going to start seeing more personal stories; they’re starting to come through now. I firmly believe video games can be a strong empathic medium. You’re stepping into the shoes of another person: games are so good for that and we’re only just scratching the surface of that particular power that they have.”

Attitudes need to change about the artistic value of video games, she says. “We used to see headlines along the lines of ‘Video games are damaging children’ — scare stories. There didn’t seem to be an awareness that video games are for adults as well. There’s a wide breadth of games just as there are a wide breadth of movies, and there are games that explore the human condition as artfully as any novel. And it’s an active medium. With film, with novels, it’s passive: you are absorbing the story that’s being told to you. With games you are the story. The story revolves around you. That’s a very powerful feeling.”

Great games for classic book lovers

If you like Great Expectations, you’ll like . . . Fable
Both works begin with an orphaned boy and follow him through life, but Fable is “also a little bit like Monty Python and Blackadder,” says James Swallow. “It’s very British and archly funny.”

If you like And Then There Were None, you’ll like . . . Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
You find yourself walking around this abandoned pastoral English village after everyone has been raptured, and as you explore the village you piece together what has happened. “It feels like a Radio 4 play made into a video game,” says Swallow.

If you like Romeo and Juliet, you’ll like . . . Ico
“Love stories are difficult in games because they’re often a story about one single character,” says Swallow. “You have to say to the player, ‘You love this person!’ But that’s such a personal emotion.” One game that achieves it well is Ico, about a boy born with horns who is rejected by his village. But only he knows how to save Yorda, a princess, from a terrible fate.

If you like Nineteen Eighty-Four, you’ll like . . . Beneath a Steel Sky
A classic of the genre, Beneath a Steel Sky is set in a dystopian future where Robert Foster attempts to uncover the corruption at the heart of Union City.

If you like Life of Pi, you’ll like . . . Journey
Journey
was hailed by the New Yorker as making “video games into art”. It’s about ruined civilisations, hubris and subtle communication. You have to communicate through sounds and actions with another player, a little like the way Pi communicates with the tiger.