I’ve not read anything last month. I only even realized once I saw the actual layer of dust that had formed on the pile of books on my nightstand. How is this possible, I wondered. I generally couldn’t imagine a life in which I didn’t read in some capacity, but suddenly I’ve hardly touched a book all month.
So, I started thinking: What have I been doing all month? I moved house, so I cleaned up and moved stuff around, but I’ve been relaxing… Right? Right?!
Then it hit me.
According to Steam, I’ve spent about 35 hours in the last two weeks playing Divinity: Original Sin 2.
Which explains everything, and simultaneously proves something I’ve wondered about, but haven’t actually experimented with (until I accidentally did): video games are a perfectly adequate source of our narrative needs. When it comes to our need for stories, adventure, tension, passion, distraction; video games can easily replace books.
I said it.
That’s my master’s degree in literature out the window.
To the life boats, fellows, for hark, the future approaches!
Or is it? Obviously reading books is good for more than just excitement and narratives. It enhances our vocabulary, enhances empathy, enables us to approach subjects from multiple angles, trains us in the general comprehension of the written word (one of its more underestimated perks in my opinion) etcetera etcetera. And who ever said that various media can’t coexist? They always have so far. But anyway, the experience of narrative, something I believe all people need, can absolutely be found in videogames. Especially masterpieces such as Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) offer such compelling stories that I’m definitely sold (and yes, I can call it a masterpiece, I’ve spent more than 50 hours on it.. That’s more than I spend with most books I love!). Even more than I was before, actually. I might even start writing about videogames more, ‘cuz I like them and I believe they have genuine narrative value.
The important element which I think enhances video games’ narrative prowess is its element of interactivity. Not only does it ‘force’ the player to stay invested in the story, for without paying attention it cannot progress; it also places some of the responsibility for the direction the story takes with the player. This happens often in RPG’s such as DOS2, but also first-person games such as the The Witcher series. The sense of agency can certainly also occur when reading a book, but in that case it’s mostly the question of whether the reader will read the book or not; beyond their interpretation the reader usually cannot drastically change the goings-on within the novel. There are exceptions to this statement, of course; but I’m talking big picture here.
Kudos to the fellas at Larian Studios for creating such a diverse world full of compelling stories which intertwine constantly, drawing the ‘small stories’ through the ‘big picture’ constantly, enriching the actual environment of the game with narrative beats which all function to draw in the player even further. The Dungeons & Dragons-esque structure of the world and the narrative layers allow the player to jump from main storyline to small sidequests, back to the individual stories of the six main characters in a way that is immensely thorough and deep in the sense of storytelling, but still manageable due to the interactive interface. Journals with updates and reminders on where each story leads also helps immensely, and again offers something unique to videogames: agency in the player’s immersion.
One might want to play DOS2 only for its strategic fights and main storyline; that’s a perfectly legitimate way of enjoying the game. But if one would like to dive deep into the narrative world, that’s possible as well; the player can choose if they’re prepared to also talk to every NPC, read every in-game book they find, follow every narrative strand in each interaction. That’s something that’s difficult to accomplish in a book, but makes it more suitable for a broader audience. And enhances its replay-value; after completing the main storyline, a player might be inclined to return to the game and, let’s say, see what unique dialogue every animal in the entire game has to offer.
I have to admit that I might be prejudiced since this is my first true dabble into the genre of these kinds of RPG’s, so I’m not used to this rich form of environmental storytelling. I’m sure, if I played spiritual predecessors to this game (such as Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment) I might’ve loved those two, and subsequently might’ve been less impressed with DOS2. But I haven’t, so I wasn’t. And one should never judge a thing in comparison to another thing in my opinion: it’s about the quality of the thing itself.
I really liked this thing. I’m looking forward to finishing it, and I’m probably going to write some more about it as well, since it’s quite a vast source of all sorts of interesting narrative acrobatics, great finds and funny premises. But do not fear, for the dust on my bookpile has by now been wiped away. By now I’ve started and finished Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and it was great.
That’s two reviews in one, right there.