My name's Evan Narcisse and I'm here to make sure things stay nice and nerdy while Mr. Coates is away. I'm lucky enough to get to write about video games and comic books for a few places, like here and here. (I did a gang of writing for this place but that's all over now. RIP Crispy Gamer.) As a result of all that geeking out, I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a fictional construct resonate.
I've found myself fixated on a weird thought, lately: that more video games should be like Ralph Ellison's great, great book, Invisible Man. That's not to say that there needs to be more black people in 'em, though that is a long-standing pet peeve of mine. What I mean by that is I've been wondering why more games don't serve as good allegories. They could. Hell, they should.
Lately, for my recommended daily allowance of non-illustrated prose, I've been slowly working my way through Arnold Rampersad's biography of Ellison. One of the reasons that Invisible Man ranks high on my all-time favorites list is that it delivers an almost hallucinatory walkthrough of all these different tropes of blackness. Invisible (the nameless lead character) runs from the South and winds up in Harlem, encountering characters that riff on Booker T. Washington's bootstrap acolytes, Communist agitators and Garveyite nationalists along the way. (I've always considered Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle--always close to the top of my literary favorites list--kindred to Invisible Man because it does a similar thing.)
Rampersad does a great job of giving readers a portrait of Ellison, showing us a man acutely aware of class struggle, racial oppression and critical theory. That awareness gave us a brilliant book. (Sadly, it also bred some crippling neuroses that arguably stopped Ellison from ever turning out another novel. But that's another story.)
But, in analyzing why Invisible Man works, Rampersad dissects how Ellison took elements from real life that he knew his audience would know and used them to build the world of the book. Rampersad offers that "major events and eras are ignored in Invisible Man. The Depression is not identified. Allusions are made to World War I, but not to World War II. These omissions deliberately boost the allegorical element so important to Ralph's aims." Furthermore, Ellison consciously used the language of symbolism to pepper in numerology and nomenclature that called back to a variety of classical sources.
The challenge Ellison faced in the book's final section, according to Rampersad, was "to place his 'epic' hero Invisible squarely in the midst of ... philosophical chaos and to find a way out for him that is consistent with human dignity, yet honest about the realities of American life."
What does all this have to do with video games? Well, after reading those passages in Rampersad's book, I wondered why more video games don't get me to ask such questions about human nature. I don't think it's a big stretch to look to pop culture as a source of allegory. After all, the myths that we now study in college were originally everyday entertainments, spread by word-of-mouth and changing with each re-telling. Comics go there sometimes, giving us yarns that reflect human nature. I'm thinking about the call-in vote to kill Robin in the late 1980s or a powerless Storm taking down Cyclops in combat for leadership of the X-Men. Identity Crisis showed members of the Justice League mindwiping their enemies to protect their loved ones, and choosing to do the same to Batman when he catches them in the act. These are the binding stories. We talk about them over and over again, trying to figure whether we believe in the rights and wrongs that they present to us. (To this day, if I find out someone called the 1-900 number to kill Jason Todd, I think something's wrong with them deep in their soul.) There's a certain amount of wondering, too, about what the pleasure or pain we take out of the stories says about us. Like, does the fact that his Japanese girlfriend cheats on him with a white guy make Ben Tanaka's white-girl fetish not quite as bad in Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings?
Where video games take an evolutionary step is by putting the reader in an authorial space that lets you affect the outcome. In a select category of games, the choices you make while playing make you think about choices you make in real life. Even in games where you don't get to influence the direction of story, a player can still see the ripple effect of their actions throughout the gameworld. So you can be the one that answers those questions, the one that creates your own meaning.
As a medium, video games do have some storytelling advantages that other forms of entertainment don't have, like the inherent sense of agency that comes from moving an avatar around. That alone eliminates a layer of disbelief. But, I don't play a lot of games that remind me of man's inhumanity to man or the way hegemony self-perpetuates. And they could. Hell, they should.
Lest y'all think I'm here just to gripe, one thing I can say is that I really feel like no medium does world-building better than video games right now. That's because these worlds aren't designed to be experienced in a unilateral fashion, like those of other media. Film, literature, television... they all require you to passively receive them. Even if you really dig into those texts, you can't change what happens in them. Video games are meant to inhabited, lived in and acted upon, and they act right back upon you as player. So, over the next few days I'm going to try to talk about some games that make you think about more than just saving this pane of reality and might just have the makings of modern-day myths. Or, fall flat on my face trying.