B.J. Best, Andrew Ervin, and Brittney Morris on Video Games, Storytelling, and the Importance of Play
B.J. Best, Andrew Ervin, and Brittney Morris in Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Writers B.J. Best, Andrew Ervin, and Brittney Morris join co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell live from the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, Missouri to discuss the narrative realms of video games and the evolving space they inhabit. The group reminisces about their first experiences playing and talks about nostalgia, reflects on ludology vs narratology in game design, and analyzes the way video games include players in the storytelling. Ranging from the text-based games of early days to the AAA and blockbuster franchises like Red Dead Redemption and World of Warcraft, this episode considers the necessity of play after childhood. All three authors read from their work.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Cheri Brisendine and Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I hear people talk about certain gaming systems nostalgically. Video game tech or graphics are not traditionally thought of as being the things that we’re nostalgic for. You can be nostalgic for the sled in Citizen Kane, but can you be nostalgic for a Commodore video game? But I think that’s the thing we’re going to be nostalgic about. I think you can be nostalgic about certain graphic interfaces or certain games. What do you think? B.J., we’ll start with you, and then everyone can answer.
B.J. Best: Oh, absolutely. Andrew and I were actually talking about this a little bit last night. Part of the experience of playing a video game is the physical experience of playing it, and that involves holding that particular controller—that awfully pointed, old Nintendo controller that hurts your hands after a while, or the satisfying rubber of an Atari joystick that moves around.
And whatever people grow up with is what they wind up being nostalgic for. So my kid—who forces me to play as the Browns or the Lions, and he gets to be Tom Brady and the Patriots anytime I play Madden with him—he’ll be nostalgic for the PS4 and the Switch.
But I think the physical connection… and even the graphics, right? Some people are real purists about playing an old video game on an old TV because that’s the right way to play it. You can argue about whether or not that’s true, but the nostalgia of growing up is really strong, even though the entertainment itself lives in the circuits.
WT: Brittney, do you have anything you want to add? Then we’ll hear from Andrew.
Brittney Morris: When I was growing up, my first console was the Nintendo GameCube. So I remember what the controller feels like, the L and R controls… they’ve gotten worse. [Laughing] The trigger controls. I could talk for a whole hour just about that. But for me, personally, I’m also very nostalgic about the people that I used to play with. There’s so few couch co-op games now. A lot of them are MMOs, online multiplayer games, or single player games. There aren’t a whole lot of two-player or four-player local games anymore where they’re in the room with you. That’s something I’m nostalgic for, and I hope it comes back. Economically, I can’t figure out why it would, but I hope it does one day.
And, as an aside, I’m also nostalgic for console prices. We got our Nintendo GameCube for $99 with a free copy of Super Mario Sunshine. Now we’re up to $550.
WT: I had to find a PS5 on the black market. Andrew?
Andrew Ervin: I’m a little bit suspicious of nostalgia. I’m more interested in the way that gaming technology changed what kind of stories we can tell. When there’s one joystick and one button, there’s only so much that the creator of the game can have us do. The button can’t do multiple things; it can do one thing. And then all of a sudden, we got this flowering as the controllers got a little bit bigger. The NES controller—to Brittney’s great point—to this massive thing we have in our hands now, which you have to be an octopus to use effectively. At least, I do.
But I guess if I’m nostalgic, it’s for looking at those shell layers of how the storytelling grew based on how much memory the creators had. With PS3, for instance—which I did not have when it came out, so it’s not like I have this emotional connection to that era—you can see because they have these big discs all of the sudden; the storytellers can do so much more. And then by the PS4, the corporations were like, “Hey, we’re gonna do that too.” And so we got away from the individual auteur creators, and they became corporate behemoths. So it’s not nostalgia, necessarily, but I am fascinated by the progression.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: As I was reading your work, I was thinking about the difference between narratives that are teleological, that are aimed at a findable endpoint, and video games of the more recent past—which, honestly, I mostly have heard about from my students who are interested in the complexity of their narratives. Because I was bad at video games, I kind of gave up on them. And now they have gained this narrative complexity because they’re not as interested in a one-button resolution. What do you all think about that and how it has played into your work? Brittney, do you want to take that?
BM: As someone who is currently writing two different AAA games, I love how complex narrative has gotten in video games. It’s made it more challenging. With 2D, side-scrolling platform games, your character can only go where you say they can go. You can put up barriers in whatever path you would like them to go, they can’t side scroll until they meet certain criteria…
With an open world AAA narrative-driven game, your player can experience the game in several different orders. They become a storyteller themselves, in a way. They can exhaust dialogue trees if they talk to the same character over and over again, which diminishes empathy and makes them feel like they’re talking to an object instead of a person. It makes them very aware that they’re playing a video game, which you don’t want.
But it’s also opened up a lot of roles in the industry. There’s a whole narrative department now. There are narrative directors, there are narrative designers who are in control of the story progression from beginning to end, the pacing, what story elements players encounter at what times. It also makes it a challenge that I welcome to write a script in which you can’t have any lines where you reference other parts of the story, because the player may not have encountered them yet. It’s challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun. It makes for a really cool, robust game, if you ask me.
AE: With a writer as great as you, too, all of a sudden we have emotional reactions to the stories, which we didn’t with side-scrollers and things like that.
WT: Andrew, let’s talk to you a little bit. Your introduction is called “The Purpose of Playing.” I was saying that playing Madden, to me, is not a narrative game. I’m playing online against other people, and it’s not a storytelling game; that’s different from Red Dead Redemption, which I understand as a storytelling game. So what do games do? Are they storytelling? Are they playing? Is there a difference?
AE: It’s a medium that’s potentially artistic. Not every film is great art, but there are films that are. And I think video games work the same way. There are tremendous works of art in video games. And there’s a lot that really just aren’t.
WT: But the interesting thing for me is… what about the sports-oriented games that aren’t narrative? I mean, there are other games that aren’t narrative. My son plays this game where these guys bloop around and they move real strange and they wrestle each other. And he loves that game, which is not a narrative game. I don’t remember the name of it.
AE: But not all games have to be narrative. So not all blockbusters have to be—
WT: That’s interesting, because… well, books have to be narrative, but some aren’t, also.
AE: This is hard to articulate off the top of my head. B.J., what am I trying to say?
BJB: Here’s what I’m thinking of—this is an academic aside. There was game studies as an academic field, and there were two main areas of thought called ludology and narratology. And ludology says “the fundamental thing that makes a game is its rules.” A game has rules. That’s what makes a game. Narratology is the study of stories in games. And for a long time the ludologists said, “No, a game is a game, a game is not a story.” And then more and more complex things came out. And so I think what we’re getting at is that a sports game like Madden is a game about rules. Here’s football on the digital screen. But games like Red Dead 2 or other open world AAA types of games have robust characters and are able to use branching dialogue to develop those kinds of stories.
And so I think that’s the tension sometimes. Whether it’s an indie developer or a giant AAA corporation, what is it trying to do with the gameplay?
• Ready Player One by Ernest Cline • Video Game History Timeline • The Evolution of the Video Game Controller • What is Ekphrastic Poetry? • The Starry Night by Anne Sexton • The Playstation 5 Shortage is Over • Ludology vs Narratology • Teleology • Play Doesn’t End With Childhood • Josh Hawley Hates “Manipulative” Video Games
• Madden NFL (gameplay) • Super Mario 64 (gameplay) • Alpiner (gameplay) • Munch Man (gameplay) • Super Mario Bros • Red Dead Redemption (gameplay) • Simulacra • The Watson-Scott Test • Cicada 3301 (4chan puzzles) • The Last of Us (gameplay) • Passage • Doki Doki Literature Club! • Cuphead (gameplay) • Gris (gameplay) • World of Warcraft (gameplay)
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Han Mallek.