By: Ren Westerman
A few months ago during a class discussion, one of my classmates asked me if I thought video games were an appropriate medium to explore topics such as drug abuse, suicide, depression, or other social issues. My response? I don't see why not. It all depends on the matter of delivery and how those topics are handled. In a sense, they really aren't too much different than a piece of literature.
One of the classes I took was called Film Adaptation. During this class I'd often associate the idea of intertextuality with the practice of adaptation. The bottom line in the class was that we were essentially analyzing films as literary texts.. Towards the end of the semester when I had at least 60 or so pages to write across the span of a single week, I'm not sure if it was sleep deprivation or the abundance of coffee running through my bloodstream, but I started to think of something which I like to call 'Video Game Adaptation.' Take it from someone who has practically grown up in the virtual world, video games are becoming more sophisticated and in-depth by the year.
Telltale Games, one of the main companies behind the creation of Life is Strange, is known for making games where the player's decisions will directly impact the outcome of the game's storyline. "Life is Strange" takes a unique approach to this idea of being able to make your own choices. The main character, Maxine Caulfield, has the ability to rewind time at certain intervals. The game implements this as a mechanic that the player needs to utilize in order to progress through the story. The patient player can use this ability to rewind time to make certain choices, see how they turn out, and rewind afterwards.
This next section contains a spoiler, so... fair warning.
There's one instance where your ability to rewind time doesn't work. The player will find themselves on the roof of the girl's dormitory of Blackwell Academy attempting to talk a student named Kate Marsh down from the ledge of the building. There are two potential outcomes to this moment. There's no turning back either. Whatever happens on the roof cannot be undone. The player will either succeed in talking Kate Marsh down or they won't.
This is where the original question arose of whether or not video games were appropriate to explore these darker topics. My response to this is that unless you've played the game, explaining it isn't going to do any justice. Leading up to this scene the player is given a plethora of opportunities to get to know Kate Marsh and better understand her situation. The player is able to stand up for her against the students that are bullying her. The player has a chance to make a difference in her life. The odd part is just how real it all feels. We're given this unique opportunity to take the position of an observer.
The professor whom I had written this paper for had asked me why I would subject myself to something like this for fifteen hours. The topics discussed in the game can make a lot of people uncomfortable. I understand that. I would argue though that it isn't too much different than reading a book that covers the same topics. It isn't too much different from watching a movie either. Being able to see and interact with the events as they unfold before our very eyes adds that extra layer of depth and exposure that helps us better understand and analyze these types of situations.
"That Dragon, Cancer" takes the player through a heartfelt story of a young boy named Joel who lost his battle with cancer. Whenever I'm asked if video games can have literary significance, this game immediately comes to mind. Now cancer is one of those topics that weighs heavily in the hearts of many. At first thought a 'game' centralized around cancer would come across as infuriating, but when you actually stop to take a look at it, there is so much emotion poured into this game. One YouTuber by the name of jacksepticeye did a play through of the game. I've embedded Jack's video below for easy access..
Playing through a game like this yourself is one thing. It makes you draw connections to your own life and your own experiences. Seeing someone else's reaction to it though really makes you stop and think. In Jack's case, there is a certain scene about 33 minutes into his play through where he thinks back to when he had lost his grandmother and the experiences surrounding that time in his life. Joel's family, with the help of donations from Kickstarter and other sources, were allowed to create an interactive adaptation of their son's life. They captured the emotions and experiences in a way that others could relate to and see with their own eyes. Games like this make us think. They make us feel. They tell a story. I'd say that's more than enough to look at some of these games as more than just games. They're works of literature.
"Emotionally Drained | That Dragon, Cancer." YouTube, uploaded by jacksepticeye, 15 January 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJbwy459VkY&t=2475s
Lemaster, Tracy. "What is Intertextuality." Great World Texts. University of Wisconsin - Madison.
"Life is Strange." lifeisstrange.com/index/php. DONTNOD, Square Enix, Telltale Games.
"That Dragon, Cancer." thatdragoncancer.com/home. Numinous Games.