Zork to Her Story : Interactive Fiction and its Place in the Literary Canon

I recently stumbled across a journal article by Jonathan Ostenson, which delved into the great video game narrative debate from the point of view of the English teacher. The article serves as proof that our age is beginning to take interactive entertainment seriously as a cultural product. Ostenson was teaching his students to consider their consoles at home as akin to the books they read in lessons. By leading them through the cannon of narrative games, covering the likes of Zork, Myst, and World of Warcraft, he likened their storytelling at every stage to the typical arcs, themes, and tropes they studied in literature and film. The article left me fairly bitter about the fact that my teachers never took the Ostenson approach but glad at least that some were recognising the significance of the video game narrative in their lessons. unnamed

Ostenson summed up my leaving thoughts in his own concluding words, describing how “while we live and breathe story in the typical English classroom, we don’t often push its boundaries and explore its frontiers”. It’s true that the significance of a pushed boundary is only ever fully realised after it has been pushed, however looking back over the history of English literature, it doesn’t take a degree to work out that the format and style of literature has evolved immensely throughout the years. We move from the poetic bards and lyricists, through many years to the turbulence of the Romantics, and again to the fragmented, disembodied work of Modernism. These changes are the results of boundaries being pushed and new methods of storytelling erupting from the literary canon.

So why, in this video game blog, am I indulging my Uni course by banging on about literature? Because the point I am trying to make is that these literary movements didn’t happen by chance. The Modernist novel didn’t just appear to James Joyce in a dream. The changes in the way stories are told are responses to the way the world around the storytellers are changing. War tore Britain apart, and so Modernist literature decides that culture should, too, be splintered and disfigured (can you guess which classes I took this year?). Following this line of thought therefore, it makes logical sense for the age we live in now to produce a literary culture that reflects its state and condition. Given that we currently occupy a world all consumed in the digital realm, why wouldn’t literature change to both accommodate and comment on this?

Of course, fiction has developed to include technology and media in its content, but we can see that the actual form of literary narrative is beginning to broaden, finally beginning to consider allowing video games into its prestigious realm of thought. Sam Barlow’s Her Story has pretty much proven my point. It has taken the traditional video game narrative arc and flipped it. In fact it’s taken every traditional narrative arc and completely reimagined what it means to tell a story. Its non-linear gameplay consisting of video clips and a key word search bar places the ‘reader’ inside the story, conducting it and forming most of the narrative inside their own heads. For this it has been heavily praised as the innovation of the year, as well as criticised for not complying with the archetypal features of the puzzle game. However, for this, I thank it. Creating a new method of storytelling, using a (relatively) new form of media, the game highlights the necessity for both literature and its ever growing bond with interactive entertainment to “push its boundaries and explore its frontiers”.

Ostenson’s article can be read here : Jonathan Ostenson, Exploring the Boundaries of Narrative: Video Games in the English Classroom

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