Videogames: Lit Undercover

August 21, 2009

Who wants to study mythology anymore?

Ancient literature? Who cares?

Well, as it turns out, videogame developers, and whether they know it or not, the masses who buy their games, care deeply. That’s one reason I’ve chosen “The Influence of Literature and Myth in Videogames” by Douglass Perry for the next ProfoundNet. Here’s a snippet:

But how exactly have myth and literature shaped the videogames we play today? Why do they matter? For developers, to improve the games of the future, they must understand the right and wrong of the present, and seek lessons from the past. The videogame medium isn’t an island unto itself. In fact, in a way, it’s a symbiotic creature that thrives on other entertainment successes; it’s also a shiny junkyard of rehashed, reshaped, and re-invented ideas re-forged for a powerful new medium still going through growing pains.

Perry points to the influence of Greek and Norse mythology on both literature and gaming. He mentions Tolkien, Lovecraft, Heinlein, and other writers of science fiction and fantasy, who were in turn influenced by mythology and the stories of the ancients.

“I would go as far to say that all literature and all entertainment are influenced by myth,” said Denis Dyack, head of Silicon Knights, the development team behind the original Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Eternal Darkness, and the upcoming Xbox 360 game, Too Human. “Whether people think so or not, basically, we are immersed in the mythologies in our culture. In some sense, mythology defines culture. It’s unavoidable. Any typical storyline almost always falls back to some mythology.”

Perry concludes that the eye-catching graphics and special effects are not enough anymore. Instead, he says games with the most “story and content” will go the farthest.

If he is correct, it is encouraging to see this medium reaching back and recognizing the depth of story and content literature can offer. It’s equally encouraging to see this unexpected demonstration that the value of great stories never grows old.

Thanks, Douglass, for a thought-provoking article.

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Heroes Need Mentors Too

May 14, 2009

“The language describes the true nature of things, not the superficial aspects that everyone sees.” – Eragon

“I’ve told you. A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.” – A Wind in the Door

I have a high standard for fantasy, formed by my early exposure to the creative stylings of J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, followed by C.S. Lewis, Star Wars, Ursula LeGuin, and J.K. Rowling, then Philip Pullman. After years of recommendations for Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, I picked up the book at a library book sale and, three months later, have finally begun to read it. 

This is not a book review. This is not a critical comparison to earlier authors. As I read, what I notice more and more are the commonalities in fantasy, and I have begun to wonder if they are, in fact, inevitable.

  • High fantasy is concerned with the purity of language and its deterioration over time.
  • Fantasy acknowledges a connection between name and being.
  • Young heroes must break decisively with their past, often through violence done to a loved one.
  • Young heroes require tutelage from an older, more experienced person, often a father-figure.
  • A period of respite, often traveling, trains the hero, through minor conflicts, for a final confrontation. 
  • A defining moment in the hero’s journey occurs when the guide steps aside or is killed.

The pattern is not rigid or complete, and there are certainly exceptions; however, many of these characteristics are present in some form. But why? I have spent some time researching and writing about the question of language, so this time, I was particularly interested in the role of the teacher. 

Fantasy is built on the premise of worlds fundamentally different from our own. For the sake of continuity and immersion, the author cannot step in and define the rules of his or her world. To do so would acknowledge them as creations and thus alienate the reader, making suspension of disbelief nearly impossible.

The teacher, however, can do what the author cannot. Sometimes the hero, as in Harry Potter, is actually in school to learn about his new world. Sometimes, as in The Golden Compass, the hero has a variety of tutors. And sometimes, facilitated by a physical journey toward the climactic conflict, a single mentor completes the task.

What if there were no teacher?

First, the hero would have to uncover the metaphysics of the world experientially or empirically. S/he could never be certain that a spell or type of magic would work. Imagine Eragon exclaiming, “Go fire, go. Fly!” Like Spiderman in Spider-Man 2, when his powers deserted him, the hero would be left to seek counsel for “a friend” at the local psychologist’s office.

Without established wisdom, the hero would never know if evil could be destroyed, or how to do it. There could be no comfort of final victory for the reader either, rendering the story similar to an endless cycle of comic book villains and summer popcorn flick sequels. 

Apparently, heroes need mentors too.


Top 10 Relevant Reads

March 26, 2009

I wrote recently about the resurgence in popularity of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In the past, I’ve written about the deep-set ire that accompanies discussions of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Although most classic literature can offer something relevant to individuals, some books just seem to be appropriate for the concerns of a particular era. 

Without further ado, here’s my top 10 list of books (in no particular order) with a message that might resonate in 2009: 

  1. John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
  2. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  3. Pearl Buck, The Good Earth
  4. Shakespeare, Timon of Athens
  5. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle
  7. Giles Slade, Made to Break
  8. Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis
  9. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
  10. Arthur Miller, The Death of a Salesman

What’s your list?