“Ceci tuera cela”: Narrative Games and the Future of Books

Today’s post comes courtesy of MIT GAMBIT researcher, game author, and Shakespeare scholar Clara Fernandez-Vara:

Fourteen years ago, Umberto Eco already wrote an essay on the future of the book in which he invoked Victor Hugo’s passage in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame:

“As you no doubt remember, in Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frollo, comparing a book with his old cathedral, says: “Ceci tuera cela” (The book will kill the cathedral, the alphabet will kill images). McLuhan, comparing a Manhattan discotheque to the Gutenberg Galaxy, said “Ceci tuera cela.” One of the main concerns of this symposium has certainly been that ceci (the computer) tuera cela (the book).”

The future of Eco’s book is now. His concept of the computer is somewhat reductionist; rather, we have to talk about digital media. Computers are everywhere, from phones, to rice makers or fridges. The print book industry is revolutionized by the widespread use of e-book readers and tablets, which allow us not only to have instant access to a lot of books, but also carry around more books than we could read in a lifetime. Books will not be killed by computers, rather, it turns out that computers are giving a new life to books by finding a new technology to access them. It turns out that books are pretty resilient to technological change.

Talking about media and killing, the media form that may threaten books is videogames, which are routinely accused of doing horrible things to people. The threat digital games pose is (supposedly) that they absorb you in their worlds and make you dumb, making you forget about other people and having a life. Literature already prefigured this supposed media effect long ago–chivalry novels dried to Don Quijote’s brains out and so that he couldn’t distinguish reality from fantasy.

Even today, people still think of digital games as a frivolous pastime, discounting their narrative possibilities. Playing videogames requires specialized literacy–in the same way that novels require not only knowing how to read, but understanding genre conventions and intertextual references. videogames require being able to navigate a virtual space, and being familiar the rules of different game genres, amongst other things. Games and books may have more to do with each other than one would think, because they both absorb the reader / player into their worlds, trapped in their narratives, and require specialize knowledge.

A media form is not going to kill another, in spite of what Frollo said, but it can certainly transform it. Videogames can change how and why we read books. We can read books in games, where we find bestiaries of the creatures that haunt the dungeons that we traverse as the heroes of games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Books can open gates to new worlds, as in the Myst series, where we read diaries of the previous inhabitants of the world we explore, and we can jump into them literally in order to enter other parts of the world. Videogames are another medium that novels and short stories can be adapted to–we can become the protagonist of The Great Gatsby, avoid drunk partygoers and fight the disembodied eyes in glasses that seem to watch the action of the movie. We can also become Moby Dick itself and decimate the merciless whalers, earning our reputation as the killer whale.

Videogames and books will never be at odds; they are already part of the media ecology, along with movies, websites, magazines, or television. They are all gates to worlds that we participate and experience. One can lead us to another–the Myst games were complemented by a series of novels that expanded on the story of the world of the game. Dante’s Inferno can lead players to read the poem it is allegedly based on; then players can be horrified at the distorted notion of what adaptation means. Games and books as media forms are already in dialogue: we have books about games, not only fiction (Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash), but also hint books to help players know everything about their favourite videogames, or biographies of people’s playing experience (Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld, or Bissel’s Extra Lives). The challenge remaining is making more games about books, not only adaptations, but also games about reading (Gregory Weir’s Silent Conversation). In the same way we have books to help us become better at games, we could make games that help us be better at reading books.

Videogames will not kill books, although there may be a bit of a friendly scuffle. The day when we read games and we play books is not far.

One comment

  1. Jack Kessler

    Clara, your “making more games about books” certainly make sense. Not a few foreigners first learned about Ahab and Moby Dick, and Quasimodo and Dom Frollo, and Don Quixote, from seeing movies about them. So a video game would introduce people, too: it simply calls upon a different set of skills, and interests — the “story” is what survives.

    I get a great deal of pleasure, as well, from too many hours spent building and wrecking towns and cities in SimCity. It’s an old game, but it wonderfully replicates what city planners and officials face every day. Thanks to SimCity, thousands of city dwellers are aware now that the energy and water they use must come from somewhere, also that nuclear is not the way to go.

    Multimedia and mimesis, then: two valuable functions performed by video games, yes — the one complementing and the other replicating our various fantasies and realities — they make our experiences more rich.

    I agree with you about “cecu tuera cela”. Neither Eco nor Hugo were being reductionist, though. Instead they were being symbolic — certainly Eco, semiotic maybe — the idea, for both authors, was that very real & serious change does take place, in these transitions. A focus too close does not see the changes, one too far sees only turmoil and confusion. I hope the symposium, and your thinking, will balance these extremes. 

    We already have our digital media, as you say. Now let us use it, though, for something more than itself. Television I believe focussed primarily upon its own technology — there are so many stories there of and about television, so much programming, that what television tried originally to serve to us became lost — so now we have news designed for television, sports designed for television, instead of television designed for sports and news.

    In digital games we have a chance to develop more supple and less self-centered and self-absorbed media — new tools more under the control of individuals, less governed by large corporate interests which “manage” systems to serve their particular  interests and not our own. So, keep digital media decentralized, widespread, small in scale — preserve the flexibility, and spontaneity — that will give us the innovations we need, the revolutions some places have wanted, the new understandings of great old stories by Cervantes, Hugo, Melville… Homer… Homer was a “multimedia” and “spontaneous” story-teller too, after all, & long before books.

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