The future of literature is video games
Or is it the other way around?
In the early 2000s, when the TV show The Sopranos aired, it was heralded as ushering in a new age for the medium of TV. Critics called this “New Golden Age TV,” delightfully repeating that the artistic flourishes of film had finally come to the small screen. While oft-parroted, this is not quite right.
For it was never their film-like quality that was distinctive about New Golden Age TV (NGATV). Rather, it was their novel-like qualities. The writers of The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, etc, were using old techniques to bring literary interiority to television, a thing almost impossible to accomplish in the two hours of a film, which as a medium instead encourages the dramatic, the high-budget, the visually-impressive.
“What is it to be “literary?’” you might reasonably ask, as such terms are used in all sorts of ways and often without a consistent definition. So allow me to give one I’ve written about before: to be literary is to take the intrinsic perspective on the world, i.e., to attend closely to conscious states, to orientate your art around them. Film and television are a naturally extrinsic media (which is why, for instance, Kurosawa was a painter), but the genius of the NGATV showrunners was to use clever techniques, like Tony Soprano talking to a therapist, to take the intrinsic perspective on their characters and provide a literary texture to the shows.
Interestingly enough, I think something similar to NGATV kicked off in video games, at almost exactly the same time, although it’s been a slow-burning underground fuse that only peaked recently with the 2019 role-playing game Disco Elysium. More on that soon. First, what lit the fuse, all the way back in 1999, was a very strange game called Planescape: Torment. If you look up a list of “best RPGs” of all time, you’ll always find it near the top, often along with its spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera (ignore the terrible names if you’ve never played them, they’re very good). They are effectively big philosophical fantasy novels you can walk around in. In Planescape: Torment the ultimate enemy is your own immortality—you are trying to figure out a way to die. It is as if you are in a fight with the Save/Load system itself. The Torments are what are called “isometric RPGs” (a single point-of-view, from the top-down) and lean heavily on long chains of dialogue and thick chunks of text, making them almost literally just like reading a high-minded sci-fi or fantasy novel, albeit with a choose-your-own-adventure twist.
But it was only recently with Disco Elysium that I first felt an RPG could deliver something equivalent to the best novels. And I’m thinking, perhaps hoping, that it is a signal of a New Golden Age of RPGs, where they start doing artistically risky things instead of just more hack-and-slash escapism, and indeed, in doing so develop the same rich interiority of literature.
Here I am, nervous for the first time in my function of occasional reviewer of things, that I might fail to communicate how damn good Disco Elysium is.1 It came out of nowhere in 2019, winning a slew of awards, and received unanimous critical and popular acclaim. It is spearheaded by Robert Kurvitz, a writer from Estonia (the game, despite being set in an alternative reality, takes place in a recently post-communist society, much like Estonia). It’s a hyper-dense realistic depiction of the 1970s (in terms of technological development), but was an imaginary world Kurvitz originally used as a setting for his experimental D&D campaigns with friends.
He had previously published a novel set in this same world, which flopped, selling less than a thousand copies. He then fell into a bout of alcoholism that lasted three years (let’s just say I am. . . sympathetic to this reaction to book publishing). His experience as a fiction writer is integral to the quality of the game. The language is very in-your-face, extremely confrontational, while at the same time eager to ramp up into poetic escapades. It keeps you reading. Its quality reminded me of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, about which the critic James Wood wrote “even when I was bored, I was interested.”
At least part of the addictive quality of the game is the carefully-designed layout, which is subtly modeled after a Twitter feed. The writing flows down the screen in stops and starts, small bits of dialogue and observations. On screens we scroll to read, so they put a big fat scroll right on the side of the screen. The rest of the game is, in all honesty, effectively window-dressing for the text scroll, a simple point-and-click system—this is a game you read. Yet the skin of images erected like a tentpole over the river of text makes the game visually beautiful and distinctive (they 3D-rendered it and then digitally hand-painted it), all in addition to great character and concept design.
You play as a nameless (at first) detective, who is trying to solve a murder mystery, but is also trying to figure out who you are and what’s going on, even what reality you’re in, because you. . . well, you did too many drugs and busted your brain and now you’re wiped clean as a chalkboard on the first day of school. As you pull at the threads to find out what really happened and try to solve both mysteries, you’re also exploring this imaginary world Kurvitz built, constantly judging its similarity and dissimilarity to our own. It’s a great setup and the game delivers on it. There are, of course, some things to criticize.2 But they are small next to the ambition of it.
And what is that ambition? What makes Disco Elysium the best RPG of all time? Let me give an example: there is a part of Disco Elysium wherein you can help out a team of cryptozoologists who are on the hunt for a cryptid (an animal like Bigfoot). In another game, you’d find the cryptid and move on (and note how weird that would be: wouldn’t that be a world-shattering discovery? A new species?). But what happens in Disco Elysium is that, despite more and more disappointments and evidence there are no cryptids, you basically start to become a cryptozoologist yourself—you, the player, want to believe, and soon you’re running around, checking cryptid tracks, until you are forced to confront the hard truth that you’ve bought into a conspiracy theory.
At the time, this mad quest to find a new species proves more engaging than the main quest (and all I’ll say is that it does link up, in the end, in a surprising way). Even though the stakes are so much smaller. This is not because the main quest is lacking, it’s because the side-quests, which involve no combat, no fighting, no over-the-top dramatics, are extremely interesting, from investigating a supposed haunted industrial complex (it’s not) to going on drug benders (you can). The point of the game is the side-quests. Kind of like life. They provide those little bits of dialogue, poetry, the tiny bon mots of art. Indeed, if you choose enough “conceptualization” dialogue options, you can even become an “Art Cop” as your specialization (which of course I, in preparation for this essay, did).
What Disco Elysium proves is you can take an RPG, abstract away all the bullshit about swords and dragons and killing hundreds of bandits (those nameless NPCs who in the game world don’t have families, sisters, mothers), and still have a workable game. That the standard trope of an RPG protagonist being a hobo murderer who just loots corpses to sell their stuff to buy weapons to kill more people to loot more corpses, is not a cosmic inevitability for games.
Perhaps other games have broken similar ground, but if so, they have not done it with this popularity, not with this level of obvious commercial and artistic success. Sure, some other games I’ve played are half-steps in this direction. For example, Alan Wake is like playing a Stephen King horror novel set in Twin Peaks. But you are still shotgunning evil smoke monsters quite quickly and, tellingly, this is the least interesting part of the game. A better example might be a more recent game, Fire Watch, in which yes, there is a horror-like plot, but it is a subtle and adult and realistic one—although, unlike Disco Elysium, it eschews the isomorphic RPG-like elements and the associated big chunks of text.
So we see reachings, but never with this degree of success. Even in Planescape: Torment, while you can talk your way through most of the game, you will eventually have to kill some “mobs” while exploring dungeons, and the entire D&D design of it makes you, for instance, excited to find a more powerful club (oooo, this does 1-10 damage? My previous item only did 1-6!). It’s almost like the game designers of Planescape pretended to care about the standard RPG stuff just so they didn’t freak out their audience; everyone knows all the best parts of Planescape: Torment and Torment: Tides of Numenera are just probing the weirdos who inhabit the strange world, learning the lore, having philosophical conversations, and interacting with your companions. Disco Elysium dares to explicitly grab ahold of what the others touched but pulled away from by committing fully to these aspects and eschewing the rest.
I want to clarify something here. What might be called “highbrow art” (what Disco Elysium is aiming for) doesn’t simply come solely from stripping away the fun things. I don’t want to make it sound like there is some machine—let’s call it the “Art Compactor”—and all you have to do is let this Art Compactor carve away at the fun parts, like magic swords, until the display screen lights up with the message: “Congrats, you’ve made something boring enough to be Art!” That’s not what I mean. Rather, I mean that by stripping away Big Plots and Heroes and Villains and Magic Swords you are gaining things in return: realism, subtlety, cultural commentary, emotionality, lifelike characters, and sometimes, at its best, deep oceanic awe—that’s what literature does. That’s why in a more “literary” show like Mad Men, the Big Plot is a divorce or a company merger.3 You are painting in miniature, but that’s because people’s lives are in miniature.
I understand there are still those with the twentieth-century affection of arguing there is no aesthetic spectrum, high or low. I cannot believe this. There is a fundamental difference between The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco—despite being about the same themes and the disturbingly twin-like nature of their plots, the former is a fun genre read that I begrudge no one (and have enjoyed myself), while the latter is literature. And you can tell because there is a certain casting away. Good art always involves the discarding of childishness, like outgrowing baby shoes. But it has to be done right, not in a way that creates something boring for boring’s sake. Disco Elysium succeeds in this swap; despite replacing traditional RPG concerns with more highbrow and realistic ones, it is still addictively playable, you are still in “the game zone.”
And indeed, Disco Elyium’s casting away of the childish things of other RPGs makes room for cultural commentary, politics, meta aspects of gameplay, etc. E.g., in normal RPGs you get gold that’s weirdly just sitting out in chests or barrels, but in Disco Elysium you are forced to get a plastic bag and collect bottles and recycle them for minimal in-game money—i.e., it mirrors what an RPG character would do if transplanted in our world, like running around and collecting the loot of bottles, or opening up trash cans to add things to their stash, etc. Another example: characters hilariously explaining to your amnesiac character how money works makes the often-unnoticed high-strangeness of capitalism stand out. But the game can’t be broken down politically—no political ideology comes off well, which is why, for instance, Vice was mad that you weren’t simply patted on the head for picking all the communist dialogue options. Instead, it’s actually a game about ideological sickness, about the corruption of people through politics, but at the same time the unavoidable nature of this. Or consider all the stuff on drug addiction. A big theme of the game is centered on drug addiction, from the romanticism of it to its final ugly consequences—but yet again, the game refuses easy moralizing, partly by going meta: you as the player become as self-justifying about your in-game drug use as your character is, and before you know it you’re ripping speed to boost your stats before important conversations. All these sorts of subtle shades would be impossible to see if there were bright magic swords to find.
Here’s an interesting question: Why did both TV and RPGs enter a similar type of Golden Age starting in the early 2000s, delivering similar sorts of literary-esque products?
Personally, I think the decline in the cultural significance of the novel opened up a space—people still want the literary perspective, they still want psychological realism and character-driven stories, they still want to take the intrinsic perspective and have art that attends closely to conscious states, but traditionally-published fiction is not popular enough to satisfy the cultural demand. So TV and video games have stepped in to fill the void, providing traditionally highbrow literary products in alternative mediums.
I like this explanation because you can see this attentiveness to interiority in both NGATV and NGARPGs. For example, in Planescape: Torment you are constantly running into previous versions of yourself in the form of your past lives that you have no memories of, and this interrogates your personality—you quite literally spend the entire game talking to yourself.
And, unsurprisingly, at a high level this is exactly the same in Disco Elysium. There, your character’s skills are different aspects of your personality that you can put points in, like SUGGESTION or DRAMA or VOLITION or ELECTROCHEMISTRY (the part of you that loves drugs). They present as a compendium of demons who talk and argue with you and even each other, keeping the text scroll from being monologic. Even your necktie talks to you.
And it’s worth noting a central aspect of NGARPGs is precisely this emphasis on the self as a set of homunculi. The reason why the characters in NGARPGs kind of come off as having multiple personality disorder is because it dramatizes the normal stream of consciousness, turning consciousness into something playable.
Another example of this: a common trope of NGARPGs is their basis in amnesia, but it makes sense once you think about it. E.g., in Planescape: Torment: you awake as a protagonist with no memory (a version of the story arc which Vonnegut describes as “man in a hole”) and this amnesia provides a reason to go running around engaging in extensive dialogue trees, saying all the unnatural things necessitated player choice, and allowing the player to have some “room to talk” above and beyond whatever the character would say, since their personalities aren’t fully formed (e.g., in Disco Elysium, you’re amnesiac due to the mother of all benders). This technique helps NGARPGs solve why the protagonist is acting like they’re in an RPG—the amnesiac in these games is not really the character, but the player.
We see now a clear recipe for NGARPGs: the stripping away of traditional RPG elements in favor of realism (allowing for more artistically mature themes), some sort of use of homunculi (making consciousness playable), and also amnesia (as an explanation for why the character acts like they’re in an RPG and allowing for player choice).
These may sound like tight constraints, but they’re more flexible than they first appear, as you can often find other setups that address the same issues. I don’t see why you couldn’t set an RPG in the present day, in the real world, about precisely the kinds of things people write literary fiction about.
Here’s one idea: make the character a child. You could do a great coming-of-age bildungsroman RPG. Set it in the early 2000s, right on the eve of 9/11, when the world was about to change. And children act like characters in RPGs, they have built-in amnesia—choosing strange dialogue options, exploring the world’s details in ways adults miss. Or simply have the protagonist be eccentric enough that if they do or say weird experimental things it still works with their character. That way you can maintain player choice. In my own novel, The Revelations, the main character is an eccentric ex-graduate student trying to solve the murder of a fellow scientist, a mystery slowly being overshadowed by the scientific mystery of consciousness itself. His bent of unreality, his questioning of everything, as well as his mental instability and self-dialogic tendencies, makes him totally playable as a character in an RPG. And I tell you, it was a shock for me to realize how the same narrative mechanisms, indeed, the same writing, just slightly adapted to the format, would work right out of the gate.
Overall, the thought of people playing literature makes me hopeful—much moreso than I was before I encountered Disco Elysium. A million words is a million words, and it doesn’t matter if you’re reading on a screen or a page—it seems to me that what’s most relevant to literature is its attentiveness to language and its basis in the intrinsic perspective, and both these are things NGARPGs have in spades.
And by the way, if you’ve noticed a certain perhaps-slightly-over-the-top energy to this essay, let me just say that writers are like chameleons, or cephalopods, and take on the stylistic colors of those they read. And I just finished reading one million words of the in-your-face linguistic wallop that is Disco Elysium. It will take a little time for my color to change back to normal. But hopefully, after it does, some minor hues remain—perhaps a certain peacock-feather tint of rainbow black.
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Be forewarned, those who pick up Disco Elysium after reading this and have never played an RPG before—despite all I’ve said here, it is still an RPG. It does have a “skill system” and an inventory menus and all that jazz, it has not dropped away its game mechanics, but rather placed them entirely in service of the writing. So if you’ve never played an RPG before you will have an extra hill to climb to enjoy it (although the game mechanics are very simple as RPGs go).
What precisely to criticize about Disco Elysium? Here’s a short list of game design issues: there are too many skills which causes them to bleed together, particularly all the physical skills; the Thought Cabinet becomes useless after a certain point as skill-point misery will mean you won’t spend points to free up slots; there is simply too much background lore thrown in at key junctions, particularly around the world’s geography (geography is super boring and therefore hard to remember, and lore about fake geography is even more boring than that); there is some over-the-top science-y stuff like a “death ray” (well, kind of) that could have stood to be less interesting; and, most importantly, the ending is abrupt (but that’s because the real ending occurs slightly prior), an abruptness that by itself would not necessarily be a bad thing, but its mediocre quality is emphasized by the room-for-a-sequel Law & Order cop-show nature of it. Finally, the design of how skill checks are used encourages save scumming. Oh, and the full all-text narration in the Final Cut edition is distracting, although you can turn it off in the options. But again, it’s the best RPG ever made, so this is more “Hey, Charles Dickens, stop assuming we know everything about London” levels of criticism.
Mad Men in its attempt to be capital-A Art fails at a few critical junctures, all involving backstory. For example, the worst episode of Mad Men is the soapy event in season one where Don Draper’s long-lost brother appears only to immediately hang himself because Don won’t talk to him and instead gives him lots of money. In fact, a lot of Don’s backstory is over-the-top and, just like magic swords in RPGs, totally unnecessary for the show and why we watch it. The development of Don’s backstory (everything beyond his identity-switch in the Korean War and his early poverty) is an artistic misstep, and I winced when I saw it, an opinion shared by the critic Emily Nussbaum. It remains the biggest blotch on what is almost a perfect no-hitter. Some of these difficulties, however, is just from the simple fact that in television you must show psychology. Both you as a creator and your viewers are all stuck in the extrinsic perspective. The show writers want to keep going deeper into Don, but the only way to do that in an extrinsic medium is to show more and more soapy trauma. So take the intrinsic perspective and write a novel instead! Or, turns out, an RPG.