Video Games and Literature

Hey all,

I’ve been thinking lately about the types of stories that video games tell. Back in college, I studied literature because I loved the stories in the RPGs I played as a teenager, but the more I read, the less I found in literature that was similar to these stories. There were books from games (especially the series of books from the Myst games), and there was stuff like Lord of the Rings which were similar, but such books were few and far between. Part of me wonders if video games just have a particular way of telling stories, because they have visuals and music/sounds, as well as direct interaction, that print books don’t have. But I’m not sure.

Is this search just mine, or do others feel the same? I’m particular to JRPGs, but I’ve heard people who like other story-focused games say similar things. Or, rather simply, anyone read a good book lately?

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Nope, I feel ya. There is definitely something special to your experience when playing video games, it’s different than reading a book in many ways, as you mentioned. I haven’t read a book I’m really interested for a while, whereas I constantly stumble upon games that immediately grab my attention, I know at first glance what I’m gonna love them and I actually do. I’ve never been disappointed with a game’s story. Well yeah my judgment is absolutely not balanced and totally biased towards video games because I play a lot more than do reading, so I’d love to see what others think of this.

I love reading but I have a really hard time finding something of good quality and in my taste, I’m always very critical towards what I read, I simply don’t wanna waste my time in some story that I won’t really enjoy. In games from the second I start I can feel if I like it or not and if I really want to commit to it. But with books more often that not I start and I love it (and I tell myself, this is it, this is a story I’m going to finish and I’m going to adore) and then things go south and I start regretting spending so much time on it or I simply lose interest. But anyway, that’s just my messy personal experience, I’m sure there are great books out there that I just didn’t have the fortune to find.

But yes, I’m certain a great amount of game’s quality and charm comes from the combination of visual art, music, storytelling and player’s input, of course, while in books there is only one element present - the story. We can’t really compare them, it would be unfair as they both have their own specific purpose. But speaking of video games, they could be whatever they want to be, so there’s something for everyone. (I don’t wanna get too into detail about the different purposes it could have because this would become too long and tedious to read soooo)

Maybe the biggest thing for me why games are that enjoyable is because I actually feel like a part of the story. I feel like my choices matter, and I’m pleasantly surprised when I find out they actually do. From the moment I start playing I get dedicated to the world, feel like I actually live in it. I can do what I want and so I create my own memories (like every player’s memories and exp of the game is different). And that’s what makes the experience so memorable.


Games, especially RPGs tend to work a lot on world-building, and that’s exactly what is present in a piece of literature like The Lord of the Rings, and absent in a lot of other works of literature, as often the events occur in our world, or at the very least, the world isn’t nearly as important as the main plot. So I’d think you could find more enjoyment in other works that focus on worldbuilding (and immersion).

Besides that, games certainly have their own language in how they tell stories. Visual, optional and indirect storytelling, plus the important interactive storytelling make it so that certain stories could only ever be told through the gaming medium.


Thanks Dionysoss. Since posting, and from reading your post, I’ve considered that “different language” of games. There really is something about the interactive aspect of the storytelling that helps as well. I have, though, read some authors that are simply fantastic at making their world visual. Tolkien did that for me with Lord of the Rings. Same with McKillip in her Riddle-master trilogy and (perhaps oddly for this discussion, but I’m looking at my bookshelf while typing this) the Secret Garden. Good authors can use language to make their world seen vividly. I suppose I’m hoping to find more authors who can do the world building (without the slog of trudging through mere descriptions of it), the visual, and the general “sense” of the worlds.

This is tough, in my opinion because we’re working with two different types of media. Books:

  • typically don’t have visuals
  • strategic use of prose and language to elicit thought and comprehension by the reader (e.g. The Road by Cormac McCarthy which uses minimal description in an almost poetic form)
  • Relies almost entirely on the readers imaginations using description of characters, worlds, plot devices also play a part (like a McGuffin, or unreliable narrator)

With these in mind it would be hard for video games to match books, but they don’t have to. I’ve been completely involved in Final Fantasy games because of my interaction in the world with characters, monsters, items, and ambiance coupled with beautiful music.

Currently I’m reading Rant by Chuck Palahniuk (one of my favorite authors). I love transgressive fiction which I feel cannot be faithfully converted to video games, mostly because of the genre style, in my opinion.

I read more comics than books which I feel lend themselves better to video games than traditional books/novels. Comics:

  • Heavy use of visuals and art
  • Strategic dialogue and world building
  • Shorter form to tell the story often in less time
  • Episodic with a continuing/evolving story (often)

I agree with your original post. Video games tell stories through interaction and immersion. Books are void of interaction but do have immersive qualities.

Books and video games are just so different but they’re both uniquely wonderful. Two beautiful forms of media each with their own strengths and abilities to tell a story.


Are the story-telling modes of books and video-games all that different, though? I mean, there are certainly differences that you mention, 8BitHero, but I feel that there is quite a bit of overlap. The RPG genre came out of literature, and in the early days of the genre (and up into the golden era), games pulled their stories and, in many way, atmospheres from books (and movies, too). Also, there are overlaps between books and other types of media, even those whose artistic “aim” isn’t the same. Have you ever heard a song and thought of a book, or the other way around? There are also many instances in art history of cross-overs between visual arts (painting, etc.) and literature. So, while there are certainly differences, and we should note these differences, there are many similarities.

Right now, I’m reading Anne Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. The genre is sci-fi (and more specifically space-opera), and much of it “feels” like a lot of cockpit-view space fighters that I’ve played. Not that there is much space battle, but the sense of the world, the feel of the characters, and the dialogue is similar. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season” and Sanderson’s work also feel like JRPGs to me in their characterization, assumptions of how magic works, and the interest in world-threatening problems (even though Jemisin and Sanderson’s worlds are vastly different). And, perhaps I am broadening the term, but I feel that each of these is highly interactive - not on choice, but on outlook and viewpoint. Jemisin especially challenges a lot of my assumptions, and Leckie encourages a lot of imagination to visualize her worlds. We may not be pressing buttons and choosing dialogue options, but when we read we do a lot of interacting.

I have considered looking into comics. I’ve read a bit of manga, though never anything in the US. What sorts of things do you read, 8BitHero?

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Besides express influence, there certainly are narrative devices that are used across all the different media, besides medium specific ones, and of course there are tropes that show up regardless of the packaging. In fact, tvtropes (the website) can be useful in tracking down different stories across different media with similar thematic content or stylistic delivery.

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Oh yeah, I agree. There are aspects of story telling that cross media types. You would be hard pressed to not think of RPGs after watching or reading lord of the rings.

I enjoy a lot of different comics and manga. For horror I love Hellraiser by Clyde Barker. Manga I enjoy Fist of the North Star which the American early 90’s issues are my favorites. Sci-fi I enjoy Descender by Lemire and Nguyen, fantasy Locke and Key, crime Kill Or Be Killed, Sin City is great with a noir art direction, Uber is an interesting alt history comic, very violent.

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Interesting thread. As I get older and play more games and expose myself to more media from different eras (plus we also live in a time where we can see ongoing shifts in current media too in terms of trends, memetics, etc) I do notice context of media and background.

Examination of genres might be helpful:

I’m new to Visual Novels but really enjoy this genre so far. I had never really thought highly of it because of how the games tend to look buedgety and ‘ungame like’ (i’m also only partial to anime) Vn’s can have some really interesting payoffs, even if it isnt a fantastic story they tend to be expressive and creative with certain eleemnts. The Vn is a fairly old genre that had different names at different points too (light and sound novel during the SNES era… where the focus was using light and sound for ‘dramatic effect’) I think as far as this concept of literature is concerned. the VN should be the first thing mention (that or text adventure or… ‘graphic adventure’)

Point and Click adventure are a bit similiar. too, there’s a large focus on a more laid back story and a player pushing things along at their own pace. the difference here is you have a lot of Douglas Adamsy’ ‘side stories’ with minor characters and events. (Perhaps that’s why, almost every PnC i’ve played almost has some kind of humor tone)

a lot of first person puzzle games also seem to gravitate towards story. often really abstract story. Walking sims tend to have a similar feel.

MMO is a wide umbrella. Without focusing on RPGS (MOO MUD, MUSH MMO) this really was a unique thing for games. multiple players in persistent place who shape a story, in a sense. While I dont care about stuff like pokemon go (or their first game) and find it fun, conceptually its incredible to have people and politics always active in a persistent underlying basement reality. Very william gibson.

You also have VG’s like Symphony of the Night or Metal Gear Solid which are real dynamos as far as blending a lot together with delicate balance and skill, (in addition to having creative vision and even a message,) Often games that are heralded with a genre (like Unreal, or Half-Life) have something to say or speak in ways that are worth looking into

In terms of narrative heavy games games like god of war series, Detroit Become human, and red dead series have all hit some very high marks (i haven’t played those myself)

a flat and linear thing like a VN can immerse and bring the observer into the experience. its similar to a book or movie, often there are creative bits that can make the experience feel more ‘intimate’ as well (for lack of better word) so i think the VN stands out.

I always felt like first person dungeon crawlers… whether they are new ones like Skyrim or really old things like Betrayal at Krondor, Arx Fatalis, Ultima Underworld, often find a real sweet spot in delivering a kind of immersive and game like experience (partly from the First person perspective) combined with a lot of ‘values’ that you find in role playing games which lean towards narrative.

As much as I loathe the way bethesda do many design choices the fact is they make some of the most immersive first person games and they arent flat shooters.

elements themselves of games can stand out. In particular, choice and consequences (CNC) which some people like and some do not. This brings a sense of being a part of whatever is happening and influencing it. It also brings a kind of anxiety and wonder about what to do. What was everyone’s first game that pushed for some hard CNC? (I certainly remember playing Deus Ex for the first time and the weird feeling I had completing the Airfield.)

Another element is world building Minecraft is probably the purest experience I can think of in terms of world building. No book lets a player build their own world like that.

Sure there is the other world-building… That of something built for you. It can be through Lore. Dragon Age. Elder Scrolls. Etc. or it can be more subtle and be things like the way things are depicted in something like Thief, Dishonored. Often its some combination or scale between the two of course. With games I find this is rarely something that a lot of emphasis is placed on. If you want a game that has really solid and deeply fascinating lore or a very meticuluosly crafted and inspired ‘world’ it can be hard to look for. Often, you’ll just have games with a lot of content, often written by different people. Sometimes it doesn’t always match up, and reveals itself as filler. Some sandboxy games completely randomize the world building too or provide a minimal amount of it (No Man’s Sky… kind of, and Kenshi… kind of) which is a strange approach that encourages and drives the player to interpret things either in their own way, or make up their own story.

similar to the way a game lets you direct the world building, character development is another thing. Especially games where you manage a party of people. JRPGs are probably the ones I am most familiar with that have an emphasis on this but a lot of games can integrate this in interesting ways (World of Warcraft, Kenshi, Jagged Alliance 2, XCOM) the whole draw of MMOs is character development. MMORPG is a huge part of gaming history. This is a real interesting aspect of video games in that it can let you shape characters or do things to them in odd ways.

Also exploration. Quite a classic element. It’s hard to write something interesting to read with soft characters or no characters. But in games, you can do that. You can simply allow the player to experience the act of exploring a virtual place, solving puzzles (Adventure) or busying themselves looking watching and doing things for a very long time (any action-adventure whoopty-do title) Even a shitty A/A game has a scope of depth that IMO outclasses any kind of book that is going for the same sort of thing (Gulliver’s travels, Treasure Island, etc) you aren’t on a passive ride, you are choosing where to go and i think, that really makes a difference.

One thing that is very different about a game compared to say… a book or a movie is that it doesn’t actually have to be a well written or even necessarily a well made thing to be fun. Plenty of games that blew up and are fun to play were made by people who had an idea and no prior experience as a brilliant designer.

Some video games are art. but people please, they don’t have to be lol

Oh finally you have something else that ought to be mentioned which is ‘crossover media’ stuff either inspired by another media and adapted into a game (The Matrix, Blade Runner, LotR: Shadow of Mordor) Can go in different directions, either retelling things in alternate ways, allowing player to go someplace with the story, or just providing a kind of playground with the characters, concepts, events or ideas of the original work. Often, I find that crossover media has a decent payout as far as decent writing or lore, since there’s usually some appeal to some kind of fandom. Crossover media is imo, simply the badass. often a lot of it is terrible, but i think this is where the video game shines. its certainly played its historical part (all those bad games from various franchises in the C64/atari/nes eras), and it lets you experience something, yourself.

A rather interesting game (I was quite mixed on it) that might be worth looking up to anyone who came into this thread (and read my post) is ELEX. ELEx is a lot of things but it plays a lot like how a weird sci-fi fantasy type fiction book tends to read. But maybe i just say that because that’s kinda of how the lore is flavored.

I think everything I would have said has been covered, but I really appreciate games that don’t just try to be a different form of art. Games that just try to be movies, for example, always bug me a little, because they throw what’s unique about the medium out the window. You can just tell such different kinda of stories with games when you’re tying your thematic elements into mechanics. The Last of Us, for example, is such a great game because what you actually DO as the main character feeds into the game’s central themes. The interactivity of games really separates it from things like books. When it’s used right, it can be so powerful.

For me, it’s kind of the other way around. Having studied literature in college, JRPG story-telling leaves a bitter taste in my mouth with how much it relies on tropes, stock characters and clichés. JRPG stories are often longer and more extensive, often the world building also is, but it just frustrates me if it all comes down to stock characters having the same conversations, just in different, sometimes creative worlds. I wish that there were more games with better writing.

Largely unrelated, but The Division has one of the most interesting tie-in books I’ve ever seen. Similar to House of Leaves in it’s hiding of story within a story.