Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Man in the Irony Mask

If Demon's Souls or Dark Souls were novels the closest fit would probably be The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Why?  Well...they are not part of the same franchise, but they are similar in terms of thematic elements: a cursed mark, memory-robbing mists, a bone-filled tomb, chivalrous knights, a powerful warrior from a distant land; plus demonic dogs, ogres and a dragon.  One way to look at Miyazaki Hidetaka's games and The Buried Giant is in the allegoric form of two different remix tapes of medieval fables.  The fundemental distinction being the games chooses to emphasize action while the book is focused on characters.  In the case of The Buried Giant,  it's a tradition stemming from lic-fic (literary fiction), which is in turn the style taught in creative writing classes at most universities.  The thing that makes The Buried Giant special is the author's conscious decision to dip his carefully crafted prose into the realm of genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, etc.), a type of storytelling that tends to sideline character development in lieu of plot and ideas.  As I'm sure many people reading this blog post are well aware, a divide exists between lit-fic and genre fiction in that fans of one tend to look down on fans of the other.  Generally speaking, genre fiction readers often see lit-fic as boring and pretentious, while lit-fic enthusiasts view genre fiction as kind of ghetto devoid of artistic merit.  The sad truth is this kind of snobbery also exists when it comes to video games, and more specifically the people who play them.

It's telling to browse through reviews of Dear Esther on Metacritic and see comments like "The prose is florid and purple, and thinks it's a lot more meaningful than it actually is," which could have just as easily been a criticism of a lit-fic novel.  Another quote about the same video game, "This is THE first indie game I actually loved, in fact maybe the first game, in general, I have loved!" sounds like something a lit-fic advocate would say.  Perhaps this quote from a  review of Gone Home is the most revealing, "It's true that it's not a story you often see depicted in video games, but it's been done to in Hollywood and literature for decades."  It's no secret that walking simulators are purposefully designed to favor mood and characters over gameplay.  Much like Kazuo Ishiguro's novel though there are attempts in the video game industry to meet the critics on both extremes halfway.  Take the Vanishing of Ethan Carter for example.  It's still a character focused walking simulator, but it does include some light puzzle solving.  More importantly to the point I'm trying to make here, it includes some supernatural elements (albeit in the guise of an unreliable narrator).  Then there's Soma which tosses in a truckload of sci-fi concepts along with the largest amount of gameplay for a walking simulator to date.  While I'm not much of an RPG fan To The Moon received considerable acclaim for it's emotional storytelling.  Perhaps the most unusual occupier of this new middle ground though is Undertale.  Using traditional elements from RPGs and bullet-hell shooters, it both breaks with convention and embraces it.  Because it's trying to appeal to conservatives and progressives alike, it could have been rejected by everyone for not pandering to their exclusive interests.  Instead, it has turned into a bridge which will hopefully inspire other developers to think outside this highly segregated box we've made for ourselves.  After all who doesn't want an engaging story with interesting characters and innovative gameplay all in one title?  I certainly like it when novels have intriguing plots and ideas to go with their three dimensional characters and evocative language.

So, while a rift definitely still exists it's nice to see trend-breakers like The Road, Cloud Atlas, and The Time Traveler's Wife making waves in the literary scene while in the video game industry folks are flipping their lids over Undertale winning the title of "Best Game Ever" on Gamefaqs.  Granted these kind of voting contests are silly, but the concerted effort made to stick it to the arrogant snobs of the industry fills me with mirth nonetheless.

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