For my birthday, I received a present that would make any teenage boy jump for joy—an XBOX 360 gaming system. Yep, that’s right, this English teacher, this lover of fiction and fine art, of theater and music, this man who as a boy gave away his Nintendo because his friends paid it more attention than they did him (true story)—now owns an XBOX. When I told my advisees (all rising seniors) about the gift, they thought it was very funny—and rightly so. Teachers aren’t supposed to approve of computer games. They kidded me about becoming a gaming addict: “Sorry, kids, I didn’t get a chance to read your essays, I was up until 3:00 AM trying to beat the boss at the end of level 5!”
The reason why I intimated that I wanted an XBOX (I was too ashamed to openly ask—Thank you, Jeff, for knowing me so well!) was because of a game called L.A. Noire. For the past two years, I’ve taught a senior seminar about crime fiction and film adaptations of crime fiction. In the class, we focus on hard-boiled crime novels and film noir, and their social, historical, and aesthetic implications. Obviously, the crime story, whether in film or in print, is a particular type of narrative that I find compelling. A reviewer at VG Lounge describes the game: “Every single nuance that you can imagine from human conversation is faithfully recaptured in various scenes throughout L.A. Noire, which give interactions in the game an almost hyper-realistic quality. The technology is just icing on a well-layered cake though because the story in L.A. Noire is packed with twists, turns, and a lot of “oh $#*t” moments.” The meticulous style and realism of the game as well as its focus on storytelling caught my attention.
All of this leads me to a bigger question about the future of how narratives are conveyed. Although I believe that we will always need stories rich in character and complexity, stories that challenge us and our beliefs, stories that attempt to tell the truth about our lives, I’m less certain about the forms those stories will take. Film and television took on storytelling in the 20th century, but both have their limitations. Deeper, more resonant character building is difficult to achieve in one-hour or two-hour time frames, although serialized cable television shows, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad (Thank you, AMC!), are offering us more novelistic character arcs.
So, I’m curious: Do video games have the potential to provide us with rich storytelling experiences? I’m not sure, but there are some exciting possibilities, especially in exploring how readers (or players, in this case) complete a narrative experience. At this point, most video games seem like purely escapist, button-pushing experiences, but it seems that narrative is becoming a more important element in some of them. EW reviewer Darren Franich writes: “At first, L.A. Noire seems to largely capture the tone of [hard-boiled novels and films] without quite grasping their deeper meaning … The streets of Noire‘s ’40s Los Angeles look great, the dialogue has a pleasantly no-bull cynicism, and the gameplay has a nice diversity … But great noir is about more than just tough guys and boozy broads, and after a few hours of playing the game, I sort of felt like it was the videogame translation of Sin City: All the affections of noir with none of the soul.”
As I start exploring this game, I may find it more a pleasant and, at this time of year, much needed distraction than anything especially new, but I’m intrigued by its potential: What happens when the reader begins to interact with the characters? What happens when the narrative window becomes a door that we can step through? What happens when we can choose our way through a narrative—what if we’re placed in the position of making difficult emotional decisions, however virtual they may be? Who knows, but I wonder …