Appetite for Risk: At the Intersection of Video Games and Literature

April 9, 2014 | 8 books mentioned 19 10 min read

As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.

I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.

When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.

My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.

In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.

cover There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.

cover By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.

In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.

What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.

The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.

The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.

Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.

Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.

When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”

Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”

At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.

“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.

Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”

coverBlood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”

I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.

“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”

Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.

Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.

Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.

We should try to write some novels for them.

Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.

This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.

We should try to make games for them.

We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.

Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.

cover At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.

Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.

In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.

Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.

In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.

While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.

cover When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.

“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”

With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

’s first novel, Echo of the Boom, is being published this April 15th. Six independent video game developers are making experimental games inspired by the text.


  1. Heaven forbid the age-old joys of playful story-telling should be hijacked by the fashions and political correctness of ‘literature’!

  2. I agree with a lot of this. I’m limiting myself to one gripe. I think ‘Blood Meridian’ should most definitely not be made into a video game. There is no need (not that there’s a “need” for any particular game), and certainly no advantage. Conversely, should ‘Red Dead Revolver’ be made into a book? Meh. It could be done, (maybe it has,) but it would never capture the openness of the game wherein the climax of the story comes at the player’s own pace, if ever. Likewise, a ‘Blood Meridian’ video game could never capture the verve and figure of the novel without obnoxious restrictions forced upon the player. Both adaptations are conceivable, but both would be pale in comparison to their origins. Which is not to say that it wouldn’t be nice to play a game with such language as McCarthy sometimes achieves; but, for most games, the language employed is not the most vital element of the experience.

  3. I loved this article. I am not a gamer, as I don’t have the patience or hand-eye co-ordination for console controls, but my husband is an avid one, with an XBOX 360, PS3, PS4 and a gaming laptop. I love the stories in the games he plays. Red Dead Redemption, Sleeping Dogs, Heavy Rain, the Mass Effect games, the Assassin’s Creed games, the Uncharted games – I have loved watching him play them to see the stories unfold (and occasionally he has had to wait for me to get home before finishing them, just as we would wait to see a series finale together!). There is a lot to be had out of these worlds, with their depth, well drawn characters, interesting twists, back stories as deep as oceans… The Mass Effect universe, particularly, feels as real and well developed as that of Star Wars and Star Trek and does not deserve to be looked down upon just because it was created for the video games medium.

  4. I feel like this article spoke directly to my soul since I’ve been thinking about trying to blend the language of literature and games for a while now. I’m certain we’re still a ways away from games being taken seriously due to many of the internal problems, as well as the stigma that games are just toys, a waste of time, and don’t have the influence to have a positive influence on someone’s life.
    I have to say that one of my favorite lines is this one: “…than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.” It’s something I’ve thought about a lot and it’s one of the things I’m tackling with a project I’m writing at the moment. I feel like there are a lot of stories worth telling about how games (and competitive games/eSports) can affect people, but they’re not being written. I took the approach of “it’s something I would LOVE to read, but it doesn’t exist, so I may as well be the one to write it.”
    I do think, however, that there might be a lot of resistance and negative feedback from the overwhelming majority who only think games are a form of entertainment and are not artistic (or political, or socially critical, etc). But it’s a hurdle we can slowly get over with enough hard work.

  5. This is fascinating stuff. I am an aspiring author with an ambition to write for games, and you just encapsulated perfectly how I feel about the way literature and games can work together to tell wonderful stories.

    Over the years I’ve been really inspired by games with great storytelling, such as my personal favourite, The Longest Journey, but there are way too few of them out there. Likewise, the fiction publishing world can be incredibly narrow-minded when it comes to the types of audience they try to attract. There is just SO much scope for improvement if writers and game makers are willing to engage in dialogue. Unfortunately right now it feels as though there is a divide between the two that is still waiting to be filled, so that young aspiring writers see games writing as a viable option open to them, and not just a side-project or a career only open to someone with previous experience as a game developer.

    I do believe we are on the brink of a significant development in this area, so long as people keep this conversation going on. Thanks so much for this article!

  6. Wonderful essay—I’ve been mulling over the same kinds of questions in my head for a while, and as an MFA, wondered if I could ever get a job in video game writing (I’ve applied, to no avail).

    The games I always thought was the most novelistic were those in the Elder Scrolls series, where there’s so much attention put into building the world and adding details to its lore/culture, and also, increasingly, asking the player to face moral dilemmas. When I played Morrowind, the third game in the series, as a teenager, the developers had put books within the world of the game (there were hundreds of them), which all had actual stories, fables, histories, etc. in them. The books added so much depth and texture to the world, and I spent hours of gameplay simply reading.

  7. I love the comments sections at The Millions. Intelligent, respectful conversation is such an anomaly in digital society.

    As for the article, I am so glad someone has finally written about something I have been thinking and saying for years. I’m fascinated by the concept of video games as emerging art, and I think documentaries like Indie Gamer show just how much range of creative expression there is in this medium. Additionally, as a lifetime gamer (I’m 29 years old), I echo what the author says about video games influencing my writing and reading habits as much as books. I learned about non-linear storytelling, fugue states, disassociation, and fragmentation through Final Fantasy 7. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty introduced me to subtext, self-deception, and postmodern narration.

    More contemporary examples like Journey, Gone Home, The Unfinished Swan, Thomas was Alone, and The Stanley Parable show how indie games are starting to demonstrate video games’ artistic depth. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is perfecting the inclusion of branching narratives and moral dilemmas as well as exploring survival situation ethics.

    I think the auteurs of our generation will be those who construct collaborative creative projects that integrate literature, films, and video games. Experimental artists of every age have distinguished themselves by seeking innovation with the art form that was new for the time. In the early twentieth century, it was film (which, not surprisingly, was criticized for a time as being only capable of being a vehicle for entertainment). It’s only a matter of time before video games are perceived in the same way.

  8. Hmmm. What I despised from early on about video games were the hamfisted, utterly ridiculous storylines. Worse than those in Japanese animes if that is even possible. I always consider a good hand-eye challenge to be the premier benefit of gaming and from all the recent games I’ve seen that appears very much to remain the case.

  9. You’re using a plenty of titles and learned terms. And to someone acquainted to some of those games, books and terms your claims just may sound preposterous.

    “What can be the dialogue between Huxley and Half Life and Diablo and la Divina Commedia?”, “How is a shootout in Doom ‘existential’?” “Why would Cervantes, in particular, enjoy Assassin’s Creed?”, “What exactly was the influence of Bulgakov ?”, “What ‘hollywood clichés’ have been ‘appropriated’ as of late?”

    Particularly when the claims you’re making may sound strange, show, don’t just tell.

    The central argument is not very clear either. You say that it’s “the industry” that “is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy” but at the same time you concede they are making very good money. They do have their culture role: they are making fun and flashy pastimes that stressed-out people can buy.

    And there’s another contradiction: You concede that the 45% of gamers are “female”. And then you say there are “swaths of potential players” “tacitly abandoned with sexism”. You must be talking about the missing 5%. And them you want to get with what exactly? Some doll house simulators based on the novels of George Sand? Now, are girls, in principle, a different species and should be playing girly courtship games instead of shooting at the slaver pimps in Fallout: New Vegas?

  10. I think this is a very interesting article! The cross over between novels and film is extremely widespread, and I very much believe a similar level of interaction between novels and video games would only serve to diversify both industries – not to mention make amazing video games!

    One example where I feel that the novel and video game is perfactly integrated is in the iphone app game Device 6. Although only a small-scale, app game at the moment, the concepts it employs and the ways it marries novel-like storytelling and puzzle gameplay is amazingly innovative. I’d recommend anyone interested in making writing-oriented video games take a look! It certainly changed my outlook.

  11. Ever notice that good books frequently make bad films and vice versa? Shoe-horning the tropes of one medium into another has a tendency to fail. Pride And Prejudice will make a terrible game, but Pride And Prejudice And Zombies might be an interesting possibility.

    As regards “games for women”, maybe they would happen if more women headed to their bedrooms/basements and started coding games. Instead we mostly hear moaning about how the industry doesn’t make a place for them or make the sort of games they think they ought to like. But if you look at the indie developers who made their own stuff outside the industry, they tend to be male (yes, white too, since you asked).

  12. Intriguing article! I actually wrote my undergrad English thesis on the intersection of play/games and literature, with a nod to the fact that certain video games cross over into the realm of literature and vice versa.

    For those interested in games that cross the border into literature, I would point you to an old game series that truly embodies fantastic writing: Cori and Lori Ann Cole’s Quest for Glory series. The games are loaded with literary references and sharp wit, and I find the characters so engrossing, I still play and enjoy the games today…. and they were made in the early 1990’s!

    Another game frequently referenced in the video game as art discussions is Myst. It’s an almost poetic experience. Another oldie but goodie.

  13. This is a fascinating article! It’s great to read all of the comments and realizing there is such an interest in this topic. We have attempted to offer a more story-based option to the interactive fiction market. We have focused on story first with a bit of interactivity at key choice points. All of our stories focus on romance and are aimed at the busy, modern woman. We just launched in February and are looking forward to gathering data as to what works and what doesn’t. Do we need more graphics (currently there is just cover image and that’s all). Does there need to be more choices? (there are at least two choices for the reader to make in each branch). We focused on a great story with rich characters and settings with game playing second. We’re crossing our fingers it has a good balance!

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