Would You Rather Read or Play a Novel?

In an old episode of Star Trek: Voyager (“Future’s End, Part I,”: Season 3, 1996), the crew travels from the 24th century to late 20th century Earth, there to encounter the wonders of ‘modern’ civilization, including soap operas. As Neelix (the crew’s cook) tries to explain the intricacies of a specific episode, Ensign Harry Kim is puzzled, remarking “how strange to watch a story you don’t interact with.” He is of course referring to the Holodeck, where the crew literally becomes part of their favorite stories, be it Beowulf or a desperate defense of the Alamo. In the 24th century, stories are meant to be lived in and through—not as passive intellectual entertainment. In a sense, it is the ultimate merging of literature and video games, where classic stories can be re-lived and re-imagined, a basic story template upon which a ‘reader’ can play different roles that lead to unexpected outcomes. 

In the early 21st century, we seem to be on the cusp of this merging of mediums. While we still have the very ancient technology of books, recording a fixed story in specific language with a definite plot, we also have the storytelling of gaming. From RPGs to video games and all their various subgenres, the reader becomes the actor: not only reading the words but deciding who the characters are. From the very inception of the personal computer, this possibility was precociously explored in ‘text adventures’ (Zork, Planetfall, etc.) which read like a traditional book but depended upon typed commands to propel the story: do you talk to the merchant? Open the door? Fight the orc? Loot the treasure? Save the girl? Please restate your request, I don’t understand that command.

Today, as games become increasingly complex and interactive, the stories become almost limitless. Some games change depending on your moral outlook, while other invite you to choose sides in a galactic dispute. Even when the story follows an established narrative—be it the Roman Empire or the Star Wars universe—the game has the freedom to offer alternatives. What if Luke Skywalker is killed during the Battle of Yavin? Or the Germans ultimately conquered Stalingrad and from there all Russia? A single decision—or mistake—can re-write history as we know it. Books don’t have the luxury of offering every possible plot line and variable, so games have filled in the gap of “what if?” that fans have long since argued, without having a plausible way to test their conclusions.

However, as we march boldly into the future of storytelling, do we continue to segregate our entertainment? Do stories tell “how it happened,” leaving games to tell “what could have been?” In a way, both are unsatisfying, as a story can leave you wanting more, whereas a game can seem too open-ended, lacking a true moral or aesthetic vision. Can a game have a message or a point of view if so much of the ‘meaning’ is the hands of the players? After all, even the most edifying plot can be lost in the sheer carnage of the average video game. If Hamlet gave you the option of killing your uncle in the First Act, would it still be Shakespeare? Or would it be better? Is that the one thing that classic literature lacks for modern readers (and especially students): the ability to stage your own drama?

Of course, theater does this all the time, and is arguably ‘game technology’ in its earliest form. To stage any Shakespearean play, for example, the director has to make decisions about the text—especially a long text like Hamlet. Which scenes to cut? Which speeches to trim? Where to stage it? How to dress it? Even the actors have to weigh each word of their speeches, making even an iconic “To be, or not to be” speech highly variable—comic, despairing, philosophic, cynical, mystical, etc. Perhaps that’s why Shakespeare has lived longer than almost anything else in the language, and continues to be the most-performed playwright in English (even in other countries): he took the art of interaction to its highest level. A play must be staged, acted, performed, and Shakespeare’s plays asks even the reader/audience member to do the same.

Novels, though, lack this level of interaction. A novel begins in Chapter One and ends in Chapter Fifty-Nine. Even with its catalogue of flashbacks, flash-forwards, multiple and unreliable narrators, the story remains the same each time. Of course, some writers, like Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) give us alternative endings, letting the reader choose the most likely scenario according to his or her taste. But this seems disappointing, since the first one seems more final, the second more of a ruse. Perhaps a better—and more subtle—method to bring the reader into the story is through ambiguity. Too often, novels spell everything out, making sure the reader sees exactly what the author wants him or her to: elaborate maps are included in the first pages, along with detailed prologues about the world, its history, and all the major characters. In short, before we set foot in this imaginary landscape, we know too much and have to imagine too little.

While a video game literally depicts the entire world before our eyes, it forces us to interact with it, moving through it step by step, much as a tourist would stepping off a bus or train. Since a book lacks this visually immersive element, we should resist the temptation to compensate with too much baggage. Don’t tell us where we are, or what the world/character’s history is, or even who some of the main characters are. Let us feel our way through the story, piece together the history, and learn character’s roles page by page. Let us be detectives and explorers, and leave enough of the world indistinct so that we can see new possibilities each time we open the book. To make a book interactive, it requires the reader to bring something of his or her own to complete the story. If the author is completely in command, we lose that vitally collaborative element, which makes fiction seem real and exciting. It becomes like a play performed to an empty house; all the poetry is there, but none of the drama.

Remember, Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed on a bare stage with few props and only the simplest costumes (which were rarely period specific). In the same way, our writing should be bare enough to allow the reader to ‘clothe’ it to his or her specifications. The more power we give to our readers, the more they can re-make it every time they return to the book, making it less a map than a puzzle. And it never hurts to withhold the one crucial piece to finish the puzzle...which may or may not come in the next volume.