Are video games like novels? Perhaps not exactly, but as literary scholar Eric Hayot asserts, “Any understanding of video games that does not include the novel…will necessarily be incomplete.” Video games are influenced by more traditional forms of storytelling, but also influence storytelling in return. And tracing their history reveals unusual ways video games have toyed with conventional ideas of fiction.
Early research on video games tended to emphasize their differences from traditional storytelling. Hayot writes that “games were so different from novels, movies, or dramas that anyone simply looking to fit them into this longer aesthetic story would effectively be trying to ‘colonize’ a new medium.” And that was coming from those who championed the game. Maybe that was true for games like Tetris Where Super Mario Brothers where “kinesthetic and interactive structures” i.e. running, jumping and spinning were the main focus. But like any other medium, it’s hard to put them all in one box, or give them all a similar definition. As Hayot points out, “A lot of video games involve stories, enough that trying to think about what games do or are, culturally speaking, without any idea of how storytelling works would be a pretty weird thing to do. .”
Take Spike Lee’s 2015 movie live a dream, a 90 minute film that Video game researcher TreaAndrea M. Russworm describes it as “a dark family melodrama.” That Lee, a prolific filmmaker, would make a movie is not news. What made this one so different was its inclusion in a video game. The mediums collide in what Russworm notes as an intentional disruption of the “boundaries between video games and film, gameplay and viewer.” The movie appears in NBA 2K16The “MyCareer” mode of, and “is something that will centralize a narrative, or as Lee tells his audience, this time the mode will feature his type of storytelling.” As Russworm explains, elements of the game/movie “prevent any attempt to impact the narrative”, making it not quite a game. Where a film, but a different type of narration.
Although early video games like pong may have lacked what we think of as a narrative, games “belong to a longer history of storytelling,” Hayot writes. Sure, it’s just a white ball bouncing from paddle to paddle on a pixelated screen, but it draws inspiration from past lore. “Interaction has been a story mode for centuries,” says Hayot, noting the history of screams on every stage, from Punch and Judy performances to Shakespeare. And as Russworm writes, the “synergy between acting and film… blurs many of the traditional and formal distinctions between the two mediums.” Video games are not only their own way of telling stories, but continually draw inspiration from others, creating a new way of thinking about the craft. As Hayot explains, “any true understanding of what narrative aesthetics does in general is impossible if we don’t also understand the work that video games do on this front.”
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By: Eric Hayot
Daedalus, Vol. 150, n° 1, Du roman (winter 2021), pp. 178-187
The MIT Press on behalf of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
By: TreaAndrea M. Russworm
Black Camera, vol. 10, no. 1 (autumn 2018), p. 193-212
Indiana University Press