This book is dedicated to the study of computer games in terms of the stories they tell and the manner of their telling. It applies practices of reading texts from literary and cultural studies to consider the computer game as an emerging mode of contemporary storytelling. The book contains detailed discussion of narrative and realism in four of the most significant games of the last decade: ‘Tomb Raider’, ‘Half-Life’, ‘Close Combat’, and ‘Sim City’. It recognises the excitement and pleasure that has made the computer game such a massive global phenomenon.
The formal characteristics of the computer game as an independent form need examination if it is to be treated with the seriousness, as a massively popular form of cultural expression, that it deserves. To simply condemn or ignore this developing form of fiction as ‘childish’, rather than recognise its ‘immaturity’, might well be a mistake. This study offers suggestions, through example, of a practice of reading computer games that in no way constitutes a rigid methodology, but might be among the first faltering steps towards such a critical undertaking.
The questions of form examined in this chapter follow from the central premise that Tomb Raider can be ‘read’ as fiction, and as self-conscious fiction in which serious play is made not just in game terms, but in terms that literary critics would recognise as play with the possibilities and limitations of storytelling. It is shown that some aspects of this self-consciousness are the result of what might be termed deliberate ‘authorial’ intention or design, and include (but sometimes go beyond) mere parody and pastiche. Potentially more interesting formal characteristics emerge, with the game designers' conscious help or without it, from the meeting of technology with what is referred to as ‘reader’ as well as ‘player’. In taking in such questions as how this fiction ‘works’ in a formal sense, and what the relationship is between this fictional mode and the other fictional modes it draws upon and alludes to, the chapter hopes to justify the claim that the Tomb Raider series is a representative, however primitive, of a new fictional form.
This chapter seeks not so much to support the more hyperbolic claims for Half Life's radicalism as a groundbreaking text, but to look at the mechanics of its storytelling processes to interrogate the ways in which it works as a supposedly interactive form of text that makes the most of this point of intersection. Half-Life is offered as an example of ‘first-person’ game-fictions through which some of the more extreme claims for the future of game-fictions — that they represent something through which it is increasingly possible to see the elision of the distinction between simulation and real — can be evaluated in a critical manner.
This chapter explores two distinct characteristics that can be found in a game such as Close Combat. Firstly it looks at it in relation to the more general sub-genre of game-fictions, the real-time strategy game, to which it belongs. Then it considers it in terms of its reference to other historical texts that focus on military matters, and other texts sometimes labelled ‘counterfactual’ historical works. In looking at this game-fiction as a specifically historical text, the chapter concentrates on the ways in which Close Combat attempts to negotiate two ambitions that would seem to be incompatible with one another. On the one hand, Close Combat attempts to address the desire for a level of scholarship comparable to that which informs the conventional historical work — it must be ‘accurate’, its attention to detail must satisfy an audience already likely to be conversant with the period in which it is set, its reference must always be to the historical record. On the other hand, this is not a narrative history or a historical documentary, it is a game-fiction. It depends on its ability not only to reflect or iterate historical detail from a supposedly ‘objective’ position (with its fixed distance reflecting that adopted by a certain type of military historian who concentrates on the details of the hardware over the human story), but for its most basic readability on its potential for departure from the historical record.
This chapter discusses how SimCity sheds light on how the narratives through which we now explain the world to ourselves are beginning to change in their encounter with the computer and the computer game. It argues that SimCity works as a game, and as a narrative, because we already know the story we are supposed to tell and already accept that the narrative reference made is not to the historical, but to the myth of American utopian futures. SimCity does not attempt to use British imperialism and colonialism or Nazi militarism as its model, but however the expectations of the game are communicated, whether in its title or not, they establish limits above all else.
This chapter begins with a discussion of the three-way intersection between simulation, game, and real. It argues that we are so blinded by the sheen reflecting off our consoles and computers and by the hype of their public relations machines that we no longer see just how traditional the narratives on offer really are. We are always in danger of prioritising ‘computer’ over ‘game’, ‘game’ over ‘fiction’, and making too many assumptions about the ‘virtual’ that we do not take proper account of the ‘real’. The computer game as fictional form is also discussed.