Electronic Literature and/or/versus/if Digital Games

Panel Description: What is the relationship between electronic literature and digital games? How do discussions about electronic literature change when so many compelling digital literary experiments are happening in the realm of computer, console, and mobile games? More broadly, how does the form of “games” as it has developed in the early twenty-first century relate to that of “literature”? In this roundtable discussion, we will explore questions about spatial storytelling, algorithmic designs, and digital textuality. We will examine the ways that videogames have, in many cases, been or even aspired to be a form of electronic literature, as well as the ways that electronic literature has adopted or played with many formal strategies of videogames. The roundtable participants will offer short presentations and case studies followed by an extended discussion.

Paper 1: Journey Stories: Digital Games and Emergent Narrative Networks
Patrick Jagoda (University of Chicago)

The line between electronic literature and digital games has started to blur more than ever. For example, Christine Love’s 2012 Analogue: A Hate Story can be read as a literary “story” that builds on the visual novel form. However, critic Leif Johnson (of IGN) reviewed Analogue as a “game-like experience” and even a “game” that “neatly sidesteps the label of mere ‘interactive fiction’ like Love’s other games thanks to some smart design choices.” Phill Cameron (of Eurogamer) describes Analogue repeatedly as a “game” and also reflects on its deviation from the “interactive fiction” category. The slippage between the language of fiction and games, in such mainstream reviews, reveals a fascinating taxonomic undecidability.

Though Analogue’s “textual” focus makes it a natural boundary object between electronic literature and digital games, this tension extends to games that incorporate minimal text or even no text at all. In this presentation, I focus on Thatgamecompany’s third and most critically-acclaimed game, Journey, which was also released in 2012. In Journey, the player guides a mysterious robed avatar through a desert and up a mountain. At different moments, the player can discover other players but cannot communicate with them via either speech or text. The journey on which the player embarks is suggestive of many things but ultimately unsolvable at either a ludic or narrative level. As Ian Bogost observes, “It could be a coming of age, or a metaphor for life, or an allegory of love or friendship or work or overcoming sickness or sloughing off madness. It could mean anything at all.” Rather than determining the “literariness” of Journey, I explore how it uses the affordances of both electronic literature and digital games to produce complex narrative networks. As such, my analysis focuses both on the shared gameplay experience of Journey itself and on the fan-created “Journey Stories” Tumblr space that collects emergent narratives of interactive play. This experience, I contend, helps us think through and across the boundary between electronic literature and videogames, and their once-discrete cultural orientations.

Paper 2: Limbo and the Edge of the Literary
Jim Brown (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Limbo, released in 2010, is a puzzle platformer that features a player character who awakes in Limbo, on the edge of hell. He must traverse a world of bear traps, giant killer spiders, and spinning gears. As with any game, the player of Limbo will necessarily fail while solving the game’s puzzles; however, this game makes those failures especially painful. The player character is decapitated, impaled, and dismembered as the player attempts to solve each puzzle. The game’s monochromatic artwork, its vague storyline, and these gruesome deaths meant that Limbo, predictably, found its way into various “games as art” conversations. However, this presentation asks whether Limbo can serve as a different kind of boundary object. Given its complete lack of text and its minimalist approach to storytelling, what is the status of Limbo as a literary object? Given Katherine Hayles’ arguments that the field of electronic literature is best served by expanding its perspective to the “electronic literary” and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s research on how both games and digital storytelling can be examined in terms of their expressive processes, it is relatively uncontroversial to consider Limbo in the theoretical context of electronic literature. However, what would such an approach yield? What are the literary traits of such a game, and how might we analyze such traits while ensuring that the game’s procedural expressions and computational expressions are given their due? In short, how might we consider Limbo as having one foot in each world, videogames and the electronic literary, and what would such a consideration provide scholars in electronic literature and game studies?

Paper 3: It Is Pitch Black: Minimal Games and the Helen Keller Simulator
Stephanie Boluk (Vassar College) and Patrick LeMieux (Duke University)

A history of minimal gameplay begins with the loading screens, pause states, idle animations, and repetitive gameplay of all videogames. Rather than mitigating or absorbing these states into more complex forms of gameplay, a few games indulge these quiet moments for the sake of irony or meta-commentary on the nature of videogames themselves. From 4 Minutes 33 Seconds of Uniqueness by Petri Purho, which limits gameplay to the act of simply executing software, to Basho's Frogger by Neil Hennessy, in which player's only option is to end the game, these minimal metagames negate what seem like essential components of videogaming and challenge the player to invent new forms of engagement beyond traditional play.

One particularly extreme example of a minimal game is the Helen Keller Simulator. Though clearly a crass joke propagating in the form of an internet meme, these “simulators” consist of a black (or blank) image with no audio and the title “Helen Keller Simulator.” Rather than focusing on visual complexity and rich representations, the Helen Keller Simulator excises all but the haptic and the linguistic to imagine an alternative history of gaming dedicated to other sensory regimes. Thus, the simulators function not as the negation of videogames—a null set or empty game which results not in the “game about nothing”—but, importantly, a conceptual game which hinges on language as a way of rendering the concept of nothingness.

Following this history of minimal games, our talk will conclude with a demonstration of It is Pitch Black (forthcoming), an original videogame we are designing based on the inverted relation between text and image in Will Crowther and Don Wood’s Colossal Cave Adventure (1975-6) and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). Through an analysis of minimal aesthetics in videogames, we seek to uncover an inverted technics that extend a philosophical understanding of the world through absence, disability, and functionlessness. From the medical technologies used in lesion studies to black paintings produced throughout the twentieth century and from unplayable videogames to literary experiments with repetition, blankness, and the description of nothing, these are not lenses, but lens caps which nonetheless tell us something about the way the world works by limiting our vision.

Respondent: Nick Montfort (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)