Same Old, Same Old?

Throughout this course we have gone over the influential nature of literature movements on newer forms of media and how varied—but sometimes similar—themes are evoked through different mediums. Specifically, we have studied the effect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work on the evolving media landscape. To credit Tolkien and his legendarium, it’s easy to say that his work inspired Dungeons & Dragons and other pen and paper role playing games, helped grow the fantasy genre’s books and movies, and effectively made video games in that genre more popular. If we look at publishers like BioWare, Blizzard, Bethesda and more, we can highlight games such as Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc. that are all grounded in Tolkien fantasy.

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Screenshot from Shadow of Mordor, one of the many games that take place directly in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

As an avid Tolkien fan, I love that he gets the praise for his vast influence. However, I think it is unfair to not credit the myriad of literary legends that helped pave the same path. Authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, Robert Bloch, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and so many more fleshed out the iconic nature of science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres (which combined are called speculative fiction) that laid the foundation for many of the best videogames in existence.

To highlight a few of these examples we can inspect Lovecraft who’s mastery of macabre literature aided the popularity of sci-fi and horror style games like Eternal Darkness, Alone, and Bethesda’s direct adaption of Call of Cthulhu. Robert E. Howard illustrated worlds around characters like Kull the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian which influenced games like Thief, Rune, Gauntlet, and Dishonored. I could highlight even more specific examples about the direct impact of literature on the speculative fiction genre and its growth into the digital media age, but the overwhelming amount of connections led me to ask the question: “where did these authors find their influence from and are they connected?”

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Left – comic book cover for Conan the Barbarian. Right – cover art for the 1985 hit game Gauntlet. Eerily similar?

With some minor digging and some understanding of the history of literary trends, it is easy to see that many of the most popular games, and more importantly their literature influencers, can be linked back to ancient mythology. At the heart of these classic, successful stories and games lies the interaction with worlds that are timeless and universal…perhaps so ubiquitously because these worlds and myths reflect something deep within a set of collective human themes.

In less words, I venture to say that if literature is the groundwork for which a large collection of the world’s creative minds turn to for modern inspiration, then ancient myth and folklore are the foundational roots that lie even deeper. Additionally, I think that at the end of the day, it is noteworthy that every author that has ever lived can only pull inspiration off of their own experiences which includes the literature and storytelling that they’ve been exposed to. This is not to say that the world is devoid of original thought, but instead that every creative output is at least slightly meta-referential, and usually that reference is inlaid with ancient mythological tales.

To support this point regarding the importance of mythology, I want to take a quick look at some of the most successful, acclaimed, and lucrative games in memory. One of the most successful game series of all time, Tomb Raider, has over 30 video games and 3 feature length films in the franchise. Additionally, the entire series is based heavily on the use of mythological narratives originating from the Mayans, Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, and more. The hit franchise Turok: Dinosaur Hunter directly rips off of Native American mythology, and the 8 prosperous games in that series would say that clearly this type of story works in the gaming world. All-time acclaimed RPG Shadow of the Colossus is based entirely on Japanese myths. Household name franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Assassin’s Creed, and Prince of Persia all rip off of popular mythic characters and universally the mythological theme of the monomyth or hero’s journey (think Homer’s Odyssey). It’s mind-blowing to think that some of the most iconic, foundation-breaking releases in gaming history all stem from the collective themes of mythic folklore.

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Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft exploring puzzles and finding treasure related to the Greek myths.

However, there might be no game that integrates mythology better than the God of War series. Besides the fact that it has reached astounding commercial success, the newest installment solidified the franchises legacy through flipping the traditional hack & slash nature of the games on its head while still keeping mythology at its core in the best of ways. The 2018 God of War brings about the best of the past, the present, and the future of speculative fiction. The game ties in great storylines and characters from mythic pasts in a stunningly beautiful form. It synthesizes pantheons from the Greek, Nordic, and Egyptian traditions which creates a new yet seemingly classic world. It triumphantly tackles combining successful game interfaces like The Last of Us, The Witcher, and Skyrim. In a time where online games, shooters, and battle royales dominate the market, God of War uses these classic stories to showcase that the traditional immersive third-person RPG is here to stay, iterate, improve, and succeed as long as the genre garners influence from the right type of relatable storytelling.

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God of War (2018)

So I’m curious, what do you think? Do you see the commonality of these themes in popular games? Do you think I am completely off my rocker? Do you agree that the blanket of myth lore when applied to games has made your gaming experiences most enjoyable? Or do you think that the application of the more refined story-crafting nature of referential literature has brought you your best gaming memories? Let me know in the comments!

Ben Root

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Augmented Reality: The Postmodern Literature?

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Photo from: Niantic.com

 

If you have found this blog, and you have no idea what this could be about, note that I’m in a course that discusses the ideas of the new media and its connection to literature. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be enrolled in the course to understand what I will be discussing. It seems that everywhere we “Go” (yes, that was a pun) there are new ways in which technology has submersed itself into our own lives. It allows us to be involved in both real-world and fictitious experiences. Essentially, it can be used for practical and recreational reasons. What I’m specifically referring to here, and you probably have caught on based on the title, is a relatively new technological innovation called augmented reality. If your not to familiar with what this is, Merriam Webster defines it as, “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (as a smartphone camera); also :  the technology used to create augmented reality.”

Referring back to the pun earlier, the most common augmented reality around right now is this game called, Pokémon Go. Developed by Niantic. As the definition stated, it pretty much overlays cartoon characters (Pokémon) and one tries to catch the Pokémon with a ball hat the user throws onto the Pokémon. This would be an example of  AR-technology that would be used for recreational purposes.

So what does this say about the way we spend our time. More specifically, I’m discussing how what once was a big book reading world, we now have a very involved technological world. With this new AR invention, does his mean the end for formal literature as we know it. Let’s look at the comparisons. Most books have an exposition, plot and conclusion while video games do as well, including AR. Moreover, books have been a way for anyone to escape to a far away or fictitious land with sometimes  vivid characters. In Pokémon Go, there is the same thing, except a much diminished struggle for the use of imagination. There is still plot and what not, except that not only is it visual, you also have choices. As discussed in our class, this question was brought up: “What choices to we really have when reading a book?” I mean, we could read the book backwards, or read subsections or chapters out of order- but that is really it. This AR experience seems to take it one step further and gives the “reader” (really user) the ability to change the course of the plot by the decisions they make. A regular book does not do that.

It will be interesting to see what the next big interactive technology platform will be. Certainly, we can expect to be even more involved in the plot of whatever comes out next.

Video games and poetry – are they really all that much different?

As dorky as it is, I’ve got to say that I probably get excited when our class is assigned a poem more than any of the other forms of media we have been studying this semester. While we can a gather a ton of insights from any of the works we have looked at so far, picking them apart and analyzing them into the ground, I have always felt like poetry has been the classic and most clear-cut example of how the artist (and yes, I am including game designers in this category as well) uses form to reflect, enhance, or even alter the work’s meaning and content. At the same time, however, we can use this way of looking at poetry’s usage of form and content to think about movies, games, and of course novels to bring out even deeper insights that we might otherwise pass over when thinking about their content alone.

One of the core foci of our course is to look at how different media operate to present their content. Going a bit deeper, even, we can look at the various tools each medium has at its disposal in order to achieve the most effective presentation of its content (or narrative, in the case of most of what we’ve been studying). While I could write a whole paper about how this applies to each of the different works, I’d like to mainly draw parallels between how poems–at their most basic level–and games try to synergize form and content.

In the poem we read most recently, John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad, we see Keats employ a variety of poetic devices to match the ideas of a sort of grim fading away to his eminent death. He uses a very short line length, expertly placed line breaks, and even small devices like the em dash to convey the kind of rushed fading that the knight (as well as Keats in real life) is experiencing.

On the other hand, video games contain multitudes of devices like this as well, though most of us likely are not accustomed to looking at them through this lens (I know I sure wasn’t when I began the course). But after thinking about them more critically, paying attention to how games operate and try to advance their content, it becomes apparent that nearly every feature of a game works in some way to achieve something (whether or not each feature is effective is, of course, up for debate and why we have game reviewers). Like we discussed in class, everything from camera angle to the presence of a narrator is an inherent part of the game that serves to present its content in some way or another. Tom Bissell discussed this in Extra Lives with his experience playing Resident Evil, maintaining that the perspectives presented in the gameplay played a huge part what made the game so terrifying, along with every other aspect it used to build its scary atmosphere.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that there is an endless amount of crossover and parallel between any of the various media we have studied – not just in their usage of narrative, but also in the way we are able to think about each medium and how it operates to present its content. The effectiveness in doing so, however, will remain for us to decide.

– Logan W

Interactive = Interesting

With absolutely no doubt in my mind, I know that I am easily the biggest gamer in this entire college, let alone this class. I have played almost every game of significance released since the Nintendo 64 era, and even plenty from before then (nearly the entire Final Fantasy series, for example). I literally have a wardrobe filled with over 325 video games at home, and those don’t include the 100+ digitally-downloaded games that I own. Ever played Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES or Hotel Dusk: Room 215? I have. Enough said.

As such, it probably isn’t a very shocking statement when I say that I greatly prefer video games to books. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy books; reading 1984 bordered on a life-changing experience. However, I’ve always felt that video games and movies are more of an evolution of books rather than merely competing media. They (usually) combine the well-told plots and themes of literature with  audiovisual enhancements that enrich the overall experience, allowing them to transcend their text-based counterparts. Of course, central to the gameplay of most video games is the idea of combat. While this centrality of physical strife does slightly limit the subject matter of video games, it tends to provide an infinitely more engaging experience.

Case-in-point: Snow Crash. Sure, it was fun to read about Hiro’s incredible swordfighting skill, but reading about a fight and trying to mentally piece it together is just not as engaging as an actual interactive simulation of combat. In LOTRO, the outcome of any given fight is entirely dependent on my actions. Thus, it yields much more satisfaction to defeat an enemy by my own hand — knowing that had I acted differently, the fight would not have been won — than to attempt to visualize someone else fighting the battle for me. Sure, I may just be pressing a series of numbered buttons and not actually physically wielding a spear, but my button presses are still managed by a skill that I have developed. Combat in a video game is so immersive because, by presenting audiovisual feedback based on your input, the game is temporarily able to convince you that your button-pressing skill is actually real combat skill.

Think about it. After winning a fight in LOTRO, which thought is more likely to cross your mind: “Wow, I’m awesome at hitting buttons,” or “I’ve gotten really good at fighting”? When you approach an enemy, do you intend to kill him or to press a series of buttons in a timed manner which, with proper execution, will cause a certain number to be added to the value designated as “Experience Points”? Video games have mastered this art of subconsciously convincing the player that their prowess in combat is directly tied to the thoroughly unrelated skill of button-mashing. It really is the ultimate in “make-believe”. And, simply put, it works.

In Snow Crash, I cannot in any way affect the outcome of Hiro’s battles. The book does not provide me with a way to immediately act out the fights. Sure, my imagination is at work in constructing the conflict, but experiencing a semi-concrete form of the fight is definitely more involving and immersive than reading a text description of it. In this sense, I’m infinitely more absorbed in LOTRO’s battles than those found in Snow Crash, as I engage in the near-perfected illusion of actual interactive combat. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll always prefer pretending to fight an enemy myself to imagining someone else fight the pretend battle for me.

-Billy Bunce