The Next Great American Novel Will Be a Video Game


I feel a pang of pain to admit that the next Great American Novel will probably be a videogame. Indeed, as a booklover, this statement is an abomination to me. But the same airs which make me build altars to “Moby Dick” force my hand.

Before I continue, I should note that I am not a gamer. And I am especially not an advocate for gamer culture. But most Americans are passionate about, and pore over, video games. (Pew reports that half of all Americans in 2015 played video games, a number that’s likely risen since.) Little wonder: they're enjoyable and extremely engaging, to the point that the UN called video game addiction a public health crisis. Contrast this with books: 24% Americans read no books last year. Why is that? Booklovers might say it's because games are easier, and reading is hard. The best games are easy-at-hand, commodified opiates, and will never ascend the majestic throne of literature, or so us bibliophiles tell each other.

But what if we're wrong? What if the new Great American Novel isn't a story on pages, but something like “Mass Effect,” the third-person shooter game that is the video game equivalent of a pulpy bestselling Tom Clancy thriller?

Yet what makes this particular question — as to what the next Great American [Insert Art Form here] is, and whether it will displace the Great American Novel — so interesting is that it is not an artistic question, but a technological one. The notion of virtuosity is forever wedded to a question of format, and format is dictated by technology. Artistic merit is a tower raised on a foundation, and that foundation is called a container.

The vessel comes first

Legendary music producer Brian Eno once said that "two things that really make for good records: deadlines and small budgets,“ and the choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote in her book, "whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources." If you think I'm racing towards a point here, correct. Creativity is about limits. The larger context is social, cultural, economic. But a major part of context, and limits, comes down to ordinary, simple, doo-dah physical constraints. Like the container: the movie screen, or the vinyl record. David Byrne wrote a whole book about this, called "How Music Works." He told The Guardian:

Context is much more important and ubiquitous than I'd realised. Forces that you might think are utterly unrelated to creativity can have a big impact. Technology obviously, but environment too. Even financial structures can affect the actual content of a song. The making of music is profoundly affected by the market.

In his TED Talk on the subject, Byrne discussed location, after showing a picture of CBGB's, a downtown club in Manhattan:

This is the venue where, as a young man, some of the music that I wrote was first performed. It was, remarkably, a pretty good sounding room. With all the uneven walls and all the crap everywhere, it actually sounded pretty good. ... So the nature of the room meant that words could be understood.

Echoey, Gothic cathedrals encourage music without key changes — long notes, no sharp rhythm (meaning drums sound horrible, but choral music sounds lovely). Drawing rooms are less reverberant, perfect for Mozart. Jazz began in riverboats and clubs – very noisy, people dancing, requests for repeated melodies, so improvisation becomes the law of the land. As Byrne later said in The Guardian:

With pop music, the format dictates the form to a big degree. Just think of the pop single. It has endured as a form even in the download age because bands conform to a strict format, and work, often very productively, within the parameters. ... Emotion is moulded by the format, too. The format is the starting point. It pre-exists. In a 3 minute pop song, the form exists first to the point where we hardly even acknowledge it.

Or, as the Evening Standard put it, even more bluntly: “The three-minute pop song was dictated by the size of a 78 or 45rpm disc, while the size of a CD, conversely, was designed to accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony."

“We make music, primarily the form at least, to fit these contexts, and if we make art to fit gallery walls or museum walls, and if we write software to fit existing operating systems,” Byrne said in his TED Talk. “But the pleasure and the passion and the joy is still there. This is a reverse view of things from the kind of traditional Romantic view. The Romantic view is that first comes the passion and then the outpouring of emotion, and then somehow it gets shaped into something.”

“And I'm saying, well, the passion's still there, but the vessel that it's going to be injected into and poured into, that is instinctively and intuitively created first,” he concluded.

If Byrne is right, then art’s connection with technology is underestimated. We're looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. The irreducible logic of constraint, and container, feed imagination. The engagement of the vinyl needle has as much to do with the wonder of Revolver” as any brain-fruit of Lennon-McCartney. Auteurism, that wild fruit, climbs out of technical constraints, grows from them like power pours from a gun barrel.

This many pages fits in a paperback, this much music is held in a cassette; movie-length is measured according to human bladder retention. Shakespeare’s language had to be full of miracles: the Bard had no lighting, sets, or special effects. Masterpieces are pieces of mastery, but those pieces are mundane.

This may also explain why the great modern works in any media bear a striking similarity. Almost universally, the art and culture that we consider to be universally-lauded masterpiece are self-aware, commentary on their own medium. What was "Ulysses" but Joyce working five-finger changes on the novel after a century of Dickens stories? What was Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" but the artist breaking up the portrait and the picture plane? "The Simpsons" is a wry metacommentary on American sitcoms; Alan Moore's much-lauded "Watchmen" is a comic that takes apart comics; "Sgt. Pepper" is an album that's aware that it's an album; "Citizen Kane" is special-effects-heavy movie that literally begins with its characters watching a movie about the movie.... I could go on. Greatness comments on the structure that holds it up, and these artists all made art that commented on the technology that undergirded the medium. 

This is all to say that there's nothing inherently better or wiser or purer about the novel. It's simply been around longer, has more eminent professors speaking for it, and has a bigger stamp of approval from the intellectual elite. But there's no real fence to separate it from gaming, just as there's not much dividing Stravinsky's “The Symphony of Psalms” from Gainax’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” One’s a robot cartoon, one’s a neoclassical masterpiece. They’re both meditations on what came before, and both exceed their bounds with aplomb.

Welcome to rapture

To reiterate: let's suppose art is concerned with context. Context happens within certain containers: it is tailored to a certain environment and a certain format. Artistic genius amounts to work that fits a context beautifully. This explains why Super Mario Bros. 3, despite its relatively primitive container, can hold its own today: Super Mario Bros., born of the constraints of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, fit its context perfectly.

If we grant this … then the war’s over, and the video games won. The Great American Video Game (as peer to the Great American Novel) is not just possible, or probable. It may have already happened. Movies, television, and games are our culture's primary venues of interaction with narrative. And as far as I'm concerned, three of the four cultural legs that you need to create masterworks are already present in gaming:

1) Waterfalls of money, enough to fund highly competitive projects;

2) Generations of people have now spent their lives in gaming, soaking up the rules, and

3) A highly observant mass audience is there to consume, appreciate, and criticize what does and doesn't work.

There's the fourth leg, which is half-born: a cultivated critical apparatus which is separate from the commercial machine. Due to its immature, misogynistic, reactionary character, gamer culture can't quite pull that off yet, except in patches.

READ MORE: Is the human heart just a pump, or is it something more?

Yet as we wait for the fourth plank to arrive, I suggest the Great American Video Game has been shipped.

It is called “BioShock.”

If you pay attention to gaming at all, sometime in the past decade you might’ve seen a picture of a large figure, wearing an underwater diving suit, with a large drill for a hand. If so, you were starting at a picture from “BioShock.”

“BioShock” is a first-person shooter game. When it came out in 2007, the firm behind it was named 2K Games. Running on the Unreal Engine, “BioShock” took off from a previous survival-horror series called System Shock. “BioShock” was massively successful. The first installment was followed by two-and-a-half sequels, which were much better looking and much less impressive.

In “BioShock,” the gamer plays a mysterious protagonist who invades a Fifties-era underwater city, an Objectivist metropolis gone terribly wrong. In a decaying zombie dystopia at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the lead character, Jack, learns his true nature.

When I say that “BioShock” is the Great American Video Game, what do I mean?

Simple: as of this writing, it is the fullest, most-self-aware flowering of what the medium is, and where it could go. Like Huck Finn, or “Moby Dick,” or “The Great Gatsby,” “BioShock” represents the maturity of an important medium: the adulthood of a form—a sincere, thoughtful grappling with what its parent format suggested.

There is a long road that begins with the designs of Nintendo's “Mario” designer, Shigeru Miyamoto. Behind “BioShock” lurks twenty years of players obeying whatever the game designer kindly asked them to do: choices that aren't choices at all. Contained spaces, masquerading as places of freedom. Endless acquisition, disguised as necessary consumption. Patterned violence, hidden as moments of entertainment. Pre-ordained missions, disguised as adventure. Choose correctly, proceed as planned, obtain, fight, keep to schedule. Video games rely on the player obeying the submerged instructions of the designer. Consider assumptions hidden so deep, that you'd never think to articulate them. That’s the history of gaming.

In so many ways, “BioShock” is the answer to those questions.

Even if you don't accept “BioShock” as your Great American Game, Byrne's premise is hard to disprove. Even if we grant that the greatest game will never have the depth of the greatest novel, why would that matter? Games do not do what novels do, but if Byrne is right, they don't have to. If Byrne is correct, then there is nothing essential, unchanging about a three-minute pop song or a bound paperback: these are limits imposed on us by the tech of a past era, and within these fences, people have described meaning and beauty. There are enough limits, enough time, and enough minds involved in gaming for similar results to come forth. Tech does not create genius, but it provides the conditions for it.

The future will lie along lines we cannot even fathom. Art is unpredictable, but art always expands to fill a container. As tech changes, so will our works of art, and the places they fill. If we are in the business of appreciating masterworks — and how could we not be – we ought to change our view of why a game is good; they are not good for the same reasons a book is. Yet in every form, there is a Mississippi, and a Huck Finn and Jim riding down the blue road. These travelers do not flow all alike, nor do they go to the same place, but the dream of freedom, and the genius it takes to weave the story, are there all the same, rolling down the river. Would you kindly game on?

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