Alexander Hellene

De-Gamification

By Alexander Hellene

Look, I like video games. I grew up as a gamer. Being born in 1981, video games were unavoidable. Whether it was my maternal grandmother’s Atari (yes, she was a gamer) or the adventure games I played on my paternal grandfather’s old Leading Edge monochromatic P.C. (yes, he was a gamer too) or the NES my brother and I got for Christmas in, I think, 1987, I love video games as games. Granted, I’m more of a retrogamer myself. I don’t have the time to play a sweeping 90+ hour epic anymore. The last console I got for myself and played heavily was the PlayStation 2, and other than a used Nintendo DS I bought in 2006 or so and the Wii I got for Christmas, that’s really been it for new stuff. Yes, my wife and I got our son a Switch back in 2020, and I love the NES, SNES, and Genesis minis that I purchased, but unless I can either play a game with my kids, or pick up some old-school thing like Castlevania or Super Mario Bros. 3, play for half an hour, and put it down, I don’t really game anymore.

So as a concept, as a thing, video games are all right. As with anything that is for entertainment purposes, I think there’s a danger in devoting too much time to video games and it blows my mind when I talk to adult males my age who set aside a few hours every day specifically to play video games, whatever. As long as it’s not interfering with being a husband and father and your self-improvement, what’s the harm? I set aside time to write, to read, to lift, to strum my guitar a bit, to smoke cigars, to pray, and sometimes to veg out and watch TV and, yes, sometimes pick up Mega Man X or whatever. Video games are fun! And fun is good. Escapism is good because, like the great Professor Tolkien said, “escapism” implies a prison from which someone is seeking to escape. There is a better world out there. And art can bring us just a little closer to it.

I guess I concede, then, that video games are art.

But I am not a fan of the gamification of other forms of artistic expression.

You see it in movies. Many are structured like games, especially in action movies. Our hero wades through groups of mooks to face off against progressively more difficult villains, i.e., minibosses, before fighting the big boss battle at the end. And this boss, woo, this boss is hard to kill! The narrative structure is then divided into levels, which I guess you could call the set pieces. Some even have the hero making their way through a place with a definitive goal in mind—save the girl, get the MacGuffin.

And this can work. Wasn’t Commando structured similarly? How about another Arnold film, The Running Man?

Ah, but The Running Man—based on the Stephen King book—has as its premise for anyone who hasn’t seen it, an ultra-violent gameshow pitting convicted felons against Stalkers like Buzzsaw and Sub-Zero in order to gain their freedom. Fight through levels, boss fight, rinse, repeat. But that works because that’s a part of the narrative. However, structurally, the movie still followed the traditional Western three-part story form.

How about The Matrix? Ah, but the conceit of that movie was that humanity was trapped inside of a computer. So the superhuman feats the main characters can perform, as well as the Agents who chase them, work in the confines of that narrative . . . a narrative that structurally still follows basic Western storytelling norms.

So what am I talking about?

I haven’t seen enough modern action movies to really dig into the gamification of narrative, but I have seen John Wick. And I liked it! It worked, I think, because John’s goal was revenge against a bunch of other highly trained assassins just like him. It even takes place inside of a building!

So dies Die Hard, but that’s a hostage situation. John McClane was stuck inside of a building full of terrorists he had to stop. Lethal Weapon is kind of similar—our two heroes are detectives trying to crack a case. So there’s an element of noir in there.

Of course, there’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but the less said about that, the better.

But books . . . I see this type of narrative structure in books too. I myself have had to fight against this impulse in many of my earlier, as-of-yet unpublished manuscripts. Go here. Get this thing. Fight a bad guy. Power up. Get another thing—go on another quest. Fight a bad guy. And so on.

I don’t think this is a good trend.

Video games, even those with stories, give the player the power to control the action. They dictate what goes on. They have choices. The player is the hero.

That’s not the case with novels. The reader is passive in the sense that a narrative is being told to them. However, novels are active, because the reader has to use their imagination to see what the author is presenting. It’s a beautiful give-and-take. And what a novel lacks in reader control it gains in the thematic depth it can provide. Novels can get deep into characters’ minds and motivations, their soul, and tell the reader something about the human condition. The action can have many layers of subtext and emotion that give it a real core.

I guess video games can do that too. I loved RPGs, both Western and Japanese, whether they were Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy games. And lots of them had well-written narratives. I’m thinking of titles like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. But I, personally, didn’t play them for the story. I played them for the gameplay, which was fun! The story was like the icing on the cake.

Narratively, structurally, they’re very, very different than a novel.

Video games can do different things than a novel. Video games use a lot of psychological tricks to dole out small rewards to the player at regular intervals to get a dopamine rush that accompanies the sense of accomplishment. Sure, you fought seven-thousand, four-hundred and sixty-three low-level mooks for 14 hours to get the Helmet of Gorbulon or whatever, but along the way you got smaller treats, like a rat in an experiment, to keep you engaged in the process. No, I don’t have a positive view of modern video games.

Now, imagine trying to cram this structure into the confines of a novel? What is the reader going to get to induce the dopamine rush? Is there an accompanying app to your book? Is the reader going to read about the protagonist getting a dopamine rush? How would this work?

It doesn’t.

And before you bring up the Choose Your Own Adventure series or Fighting Fantasy books, recognize that those set out to do very different things than a novel.

Know your medium. Opera or musical theater can do different things than a movie or a traditional play—using music to convey emotions. This is something non-musical forms of audiovisual entertainment cannot do. An opera or musical cannot have the dazzling special effects of a feature film, but that’s okay because it does other things better.

A video game gives choices which can potentially affect a narrative where the player IS the main character. That’s different than what a novel can do, and it does certain things better than a novel. But there are other things that novels do better than video games, and trying to graft game elements into a novel just doesn’t work and shouldn’t be tried, at least in this writer’s opinion.  

Video games consist of an awful lot of repetitive tasks that can be classified as busy work. Who on Earth wants to read about that?

“Chapter 13: Wulfrang had a busy day of grinding ahead of him. He needed sixty-thousand experience points to get to the next level, but he was stuck in a forest full of low-level goblins. Putting away his whetstone and cracking his knuckles, Wulfrang took a few practice swings with his +2 axe and strode into the forest, ready to get to work.”

In a book, I don’t necessarily want to read about protagonists going on fetch quests. Let me jump back to movies. I never saw Star Wars, Episode IX, but what I’ve heard was that it was structured like a video game. The plucky cast of rebels had to go to planet A to get thing B to find place C and person D to find object E on planet F and so on. That just doesn’t work for me, sorry.

In a novel, I enjoy action and goals, stakes, and urgency. But I want more. I want abstract truths, hard to define truths, made concrete enough to grasp, to understand, to feel. I want the story oriented towards what is real and what nourishes the soul. Yes, I love happy endings, but I don’t need them if a point is being made, especially if the point is not nihilistic or degenerate. I don’t think video game-type structures can really get you there.

I had posed the question, does anyone play Chrono Trigger for the story? And I got a few answers saying “Yes,” because that game admittedly does raise some big questions about predestination and free will. And after you beat it, you can start over in New Game Plus mode, keep all of your stats and powers, and go through to find one of several different endings. I get that. However, if the gameplay–the animating principle of video games–was awful, who would slog through an awful game just for the story? I also get that many video games, particularly RPGs, offer choices. Daggerfall was one such game that I enjoyed immensely once I set aside the time to beat it—time I just don’t have anymore.

For some reason, I can justify spending hours reading something more than playing something. Maybe I’m a snob.

It’s generally obvious when a writer’s main inspiration is video games. I think that’s the case because games are so ubiquitous and are the main form of entertainment nowadays. That’s fine. But I suggest drawing structural inspiration elsewhere.

In the same way that a book is not a “head movie”—thanks to Brian Niemeier for that term—they’re also not “head video games.” It’s why I had to put the one LitRPG I tried to read down after page three or so when a freaking head’s up display of stats popped up. No thank you!

Whatever the medium you choose, play to its strengths. The novel’s strength is not a steady progression of power given to the reader to unlock new areas and get more powerful to beat the bad guy. That works in a video game. Not so much in a book. Yes, we want to see characters develop and overcome adversity. There are fights and action in books. I mean, what are the pulps but action/adventure stories? But the thrills come from a different place than you, the reader gaining power. Trying to replicate that in a novel just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it does for you as a reader. Maybe there’s an audience for that you can write for. More power to you. But I don’t think that plays to the strength of the novel as an artform.

All of the best art—music, paintings, movies, and yes, video games—point to something transcendent, something ineffable. And they do it in their own unique ways best suited to the chosen artform. I can’t lie: video games did influence my first novel, A Traitor to Dreams, as far as the setting went. And the setting was inside of a computer-created simulation. The aesthetics of the title screen of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and that game’s overall vibe of ancient temples and armored knights was very inspirational. But I like to think that the book’s narrative didn’t follow the “Go from point A to point B fighting monsters, getting items, and gaining levels, until you get to the big boss” structure.

Draw inspiration from everything. But for novels, there are structures that do just work better than others. Gamification of literature is, in this writer’s opinion, not the way forward.

As another online friend said, and I’m paraphrasing, if your dialogue ever has “…” in it, it’s time to put down the controller.

– Alexander


Me, a big hypocrite, put together an anthology of stories by a bunch of my friends inspired by music. And it’s awesome. Pulp Rock. Snag it here.

2 thoughts on “De-Gamification”

  1. What makes games fun, what separates them from other mediums is gameplay–something no other medium has. It’s figuring out systems and “gaming” them.

    I remember back when Grey Cat Blues came out some people thought it was supposed to be a beat ’em up in prose form, but it’s not really. The majority of the story is concerned with alienation and finding connections in a world where nothing is as it should be. I think it’s aesthetic and the final confrontation (and the cover!) that gave some the initial impression. I can’t say the genre wasn’t an inspiration for tone, but that’s not what the story is about or is really the focus. You definitely couldn’t put the book into a game and have it come out the same!

    Part of the issue with today is having to merge every artform into a giant blob mess where everything is a grey mush of sameness. The newest blockbuster movie is exactly like the newest AAA video game is exactly like the newest OldPub book is exactly like the newest billboard chart topper. It’s all the same, and it makes for boring art and entertainment.

    1. JD,

      “. . . [F]iguring out systems and ‘gaming’ them.”

      Exactly! You can’t really put that in a book in a way that lets the reader “game” the book the way a player can. Different mediums, different strengths, different rules.

      Grey Cat Blues does not read like a novelization of a Double Dragon game at all! Who thought that? It’s got that aesthetic, sure, but it had more of a 1950s vibe meets sci-fi than a video game vibe.

      Part of the issue with today is having to merge every artform into a giant blob mess where everything is a grey mush of sameness. The newest blockbuster movie is exactly like the newest AAA video game is exactly like the newest OldPub book is exactly like the newest billboard chart topper.

      I agree with your assertion that movies and video games have merged aesthetics, though I’d say it’s synergistic with games first aping movies, which then ape games, and the cycle continues. Books, if anything, try to do this with having everything be immediate, hyper-fast (the written version of quick cuts and rapid editing, perhaps?) and the game-type structures I discussed in this article. I mean, I’ve read bits of Ready Player One and wanted to gouge my eyes out, though that might’ve been more a function of Ernest Cline’s writing than anything else.

      What happened to stories that take their time, methodically building up things to a glorious payoff? If someone is “bored” after two pages and they quit, that’s a reader problem, not always a writer problem. Ditto with a song that doesn’t get to the chorus or the hook after the first five seconds. I guess that feels like an eternity to people with no patience.

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