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Saturday, 31 January 2015

Books vs Video Games: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

One of my discoveries this week is that the Guardian now seems to have a dedicated science fiction column, written by Damien Walter. This is a nice development, as I do think it's nice to have someone talking about SFF literature in a forum that's widely distributed. Hell, I'm happy to have any medium talking about books to a wide audience - this is one of my favorite things about the Daily Show, for instance.

Back in November, Walter wrote a piece talking about how SF writers must battle video games to capture eyeballs. It was kind of interesting, noting that games like Halo are winning pretty easily because they can present the fantastic visually, whereas books have to make do with exposition, description - essentially large blocks of words.

I generally disagree with the thesis, however. Sure, everybody has a finite amount of time to entertain themselves, and there are a lot more options now than there were a century ago. Books, frankly, have no chance - but then, neither do movies or TV or radio. And when the next entertainment medium comes along, video games will find their popularity dropping too.

What I really disagree with is the idea that competition for readers' attention translates to less work for writers. The games I've been playing lately (mainly Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, as well as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Skyrim and Mass Effect 2) are pretty story-heavy, although this means different things in each case.

Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are pretty linear and plot-bound, while Skyrim offers a deeper world to explore and interact with. But each of these games relies very heavily on world-building, whether in the form of codex entries (for Mass Effect and Dragon Age), books (for Skyrim) or simply inserting the occult and the paranormal into historical settings (for Assassin's Creed). Walking around the meticulously recreated Renaissance cities of Florence, Venice and Rome, I've been impressed with how much research Ubisoft must have done to get so many details right that my dad can recognize the landmarks I'm climbing.

At the same time, I remember hearing on a podcast recently (I think it was the Indoor Kids) how the developers of Skyrim or Dragon Age basically had a staff of writers who were sitting there writing the history of the world you're meant to play through. And those writers have churned out millions of words on the history of the setting, far in excess even of what George RR Martin or Robert Jordan have managed. It kind of makes me feel bad to skim through the interminable books I keep finding in Skyrim.

My point is, the conflict between videogames and books is more a case of "if you can't beat them, join them" - the two art forms are very similar, as both require active participation by the consumer, much more than movies or music. The difference is that video games are much more collaborative than books - but the point is both are simply trying to immerse consumers into their stories.

While I didn't go through the entire comment section (nobody sane does that on Guardian comment sections), I thought it interesting that nobody, including Walter himself, brought up the idea of writers working on video games. A couple of games recently have tapped writers to help them with the plot (Richard K Morgan is the main one I'm thinking of), and I think that a number of writers would jump at the chance to do the same. It may be a function of age, although from his website Walter doesn't seem too much older than I am.

Still, I'm not too worried about the conflicts between various media - books will always be able to do things that video games can't, and vice versa. Switching between them should let writers tell their stories as completely as possible.