21st century writing | 21st century approaches

What Game Worlds Can Teach Us About Literary Worlds

Alistair Brown


From the space of books to space in books

While the debate rumbles on between those who contend that games tell stories in ways unique to the medium (ludologists), and those who argue that games resemble literary narratives (narratologists), literary scholars have sought to ask reciprocally what games can tell us about conventional modes of storytelling in print. In the process, critics sometimes translate the trope of a player navigating a game world, and uncovering a narrative, to that of a reader navigating a printed book, and exploring the story. For Katherine Hayles books constitute material “technotexts,” and new electronic media have called attention to the way in which readers pass through print (Hayles 22). For Souvik Mukherjee, the “intense physicality” with which a player experiences a game world encourages us to think about how readers are equally “plugged into” a physical text (Mukherjee 45–46). These metaphors of textual exploration are undoubtedly useful as a way of remediating games to appreciate the older format of print. However, they also risk conflating two different categories of “space”: the physical space occupied by the book and its words, and the imaginary geography or story world represented by its signifiers.


Bioshock 2

How can gameworlds such as the underwater city of Rapture in Bioshock and Bioshock 2 help us to understand the geographical space of literary worlds?

[Image by Tamahikari Tammas under a cc BY-NC license]


If we wish to draw analogies between game and literary spatiality, then perhaps we need to consider the possibility that the first “players” of fictitious space are not the readers of the book which expresses it, but the characters who move through imagined environments, communicate with one another across distances, collect items from places (Brown, n. pag.), and so on. Correspondingly, thinking about how game designers construct space, and the way this affects the stories that players can experience within games, might invite us to think about how literary places are conceptualised by an author, and how the configuration of places affects the experiences of characters and the permutations of plot. In a video game a player’s actions, and thus ludonarrative possibilities, are heavily conditioned by the setting: the player of Bioshock cannot use it to tell himself or herself a story about developing into a world class footballer as the player of FIFA 16 can, because the spaces mapped by the first world do not (and indeed cannot, given the technical limits of the chosen design engine) include the arenas that permit the second type of story to be told. In a similar way, the geographical layout of a literary story world, and how easily space can be navigated within the “design engine” of genre (such as realism versus science fiction) or period (the era of epistolary fiction versus that of the internet, for example), affects the types of plot that can unfold.

This might seem an obvious statement. However, literary theory has tended to emphasise the structuring effects of time rather than space on plot. As Gabriel Zoran has outlined, the influence of Russian formalism, with its sjuzhet and fabula distinction, led critics to see literature as “basically an art of time” (Zoran, 1984). Zoran was writing in the 1980s, so it is instructive that even in her 2014 contribution to the Living Handbook of Narratology, Marie Laure Ryan still agrees that “most definitions, by characterizing stories as the representation of a sequence of events, foreground time at the expense of space” even though all events must take place somewhere and thus have a spatial dimension even when it is not directly explicated (Ryan, n. pag.). While in game studies all but the most ardent narratologists accept that the setting of a game world is fundamental to the way its narrative possibilities unfold over time, it seems that in the dialectic between time and space in literary narrative, space has been relegated to second place. In acknowledging that game spaces are an a priori condition of the stories that games can tell, literary scholars might therefore be prompted to think differently about the construction of their medium. In particular, the way games exploit spatial design constraints leads us to perceive how the geography of a story world involuntarily affects characters who find themselves playing in it.


Game Worlds

Video games tell stories through different means: scripted cut scenes, visuals, interactive mechanisms. However, at the most basic level all games entail the player moving either a body representing themselves, or an object, through a world. “Typically, videogames create ‘worlds’, ‘lands’ or ‘environments’ for players to explore, traverse, conquer, and even dynamically manipulate and transform” (Newman 105). However, these explorations and conquests are always constrained by two factors. The first is systemic: the limitations of computer technology, the game engine adopted, and the resources of the publisher, all affect the scale and depth of world design. Even in open world games like Grand Theft Auto not every building can be entered, and while the player can carry out a remarkable array of activities and movements in the world (from driving to playing tennis) other motions are not represented (building a house, country dancing). The second constraint is ludic. Players never navigate a game world with total freedom; there has to be some element of challenge. In a football game a player cannot run excessively faster than any other opponent on the pitch, but is forced to move through the space at roughly the same speed. In a first person shooter, access to later areas may be contingent upon a player fulfilling difficult objectives in earlier areas (Hallford, N. and Hallford 158). As Aarseth identifies, this is what differentiates games from literature; games are “ergodic,” requiring a player to make non-trivial effort to experience the narrative (Aarseth 1).

Successful game design gives players the perception of (challenging) freedom according to the second category, and disguises the first category of constraints imposed by the system. Doom is often cited as a seminal game that placed players in a seemingly open, three dimensional world, when in fact – because of the limitations of early PC graphics – players were restricted to movement through relatively small corridors and rooms, along a largely horizontal plane. They were cued to follow certain pathways through levels by perspectival tricks and breadcrumb trailing of objects (Saltzman). In a successfully immersive game, the first type of constraint is redirected so that it appears to serve the ludonarrative purposes of the game, rather than being seen as a limitation to its expressive potential. Doom remains an exemplar of good game design not despite its levels being relatively flat and corridor-like, but because they are. Part of the pleasure of gaming is learning the rules that regulate how a given space expects to be explored, and how space permits unique emergent narratives. The player of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, set in the American frontier in the early twentieth century, soon learns that it is not simply “Grand Theft Auto with horses” (The_atm, n. pag.), but a game that because of its less technologized and more open landscape rewards different behaviours like rounding up animals and exploiting natural resources. Players who expect to be able to move fast or kill large numbers of people at the scale the Grand Theft Auto world allows will be disappointed.


Red Dead Redemption

Grand Theft Auto with horses? The American frontier world of Red Dead Redemption offers an open landscape in which players can interact with the game space and experience flexible narrative possibilities

[Image by RodrixAP under a CC BY 2.0 license]


Game space, the specific mechanisms for interacting with it, and the expressive narratives that emerge from it, interplay in complex ways. This understanding can be mapped onto the novel, to help us to see that place forms more than merely a backdrop but has a shaping effect on the characters’ experiences, and on the reader’s immersion in the reality of the story being told.


Story Worlds

Similar to the contrast between Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, when an author opts to set his or her narrative within a particular space, certain possibilities for storytelling may open or close. A crime writer who puts a dead body on a yacht in the middle of the ocean has seemingly different options for causality to one who puts a body in the middle of a busy city. The difference is that, unlike game designers who work with limited technological systems, authors have free licence to break the rules if they wish. Nevertheless, thinking of constraint as a property of the system (our first category) suggests that an author’s choice of genre can be considered in terms of selecting one design engine over another, which in turn affects how space conditions plot possibilities.

For instance, the form of the locked room mystery, established by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” depends upon a space that is seemingly fully enclosed. Poe’s chosen generic engine, set within a natural rather than supernatural topology, means only a monkey, not a demonic force, can be at work. Dupin’s discovery of the one alternative that nobody else considers marks his genius as the first rational detective, applying the principles of science to the challenges of crime. By contrast, Greg Egan’s Quarantine (1992) follows the locked room tradition, but in two directions so that characters can enter as well as escape from apparently impenetrable spaces, as well as from a solar system enclosed within an alien bubble. His application of the Copenhagen interpretation and quantum mechanics makes it seem plausible that spaces can now be transcended at will – literally so, given that movement happens through the power of the mind (Egan, n. pag.). As Egan’s characters “play” with space according to the new physics, their ability to break spatial rules compared to generic antecedents like Poe establishes this novel’s futurity for the reader. While both texts present a whodunit for the reader to decode across the temporal duration of plot, it is the way each works with the conventions of space that pitches the former generically as more of a detective fiction, and the latter as primarily a science fiction.

On this basis, literary realism (while by no means a simple or singular genre) can broadly be understood as a genre that has to accept the immutability of its physics engine. However, as with a successful game, these systemic constraints can be actually exploited as advantages at an experiential level. As Hilary Dannenberg has shown, even realist plots invariably involve coincidences that would be unlikely in actuality, but successful writers manage to give the impression that rather than being shaped by authored coincidence, characters are free agents who shape events around them (Dannenberg). Similar to the interaction between first and second level spatial constraints in games, effective novelists can reframe the impossibility of breaking the conventional physics of space-time (and travel and communication through space) as a means of disguising the fact that characters, like game players, lack true freedom and are subject to the whims of their predetermined plot.

Jane Eyre provides a good test case. As generations of readers have discovered, this novel seems to celebrate the heroine’s independent willpower. However, rather than Jane freely driving events, spatial constraints are exploited by Brontë as a way of disguising her own authorial emplotment that, like the narrow corridors of Doom, steers Jane. Jane’s limited freedom of manoeuvre is established from the outset. Abused at Gateshead, Jane expresses that “If I had anywhere else to go, I should be glad to leave it; but I can never get away from Gateshead till I am a woman” (Bronte 32). Her only alternative nearby space is the poor house. She receives the promise of schooling which “would be a complete change” but which “implied a long journey, an entire separation from Gateshead, an entrance into a new life” (33). The phrasing of these comments invites us to read them as a metaphor, life as a journey. The spatial triangulation between where she is now (Gateshead), where she might otherwise be (the poor house), and where she wants to be (school) connotes the psychological dimensions of who she is now (an orphan in care of the Reeds), what she risks becoming (even poorer), and who she would like to become (a mature woman). Yet if space only serves the backdrop function of expressing character psychology and symbolising the possible junctures ahead in the novel’s plot, one has to ask why it matters that Bronte has chosen to specify the distance between Gateshead and Lowood at fifty miles, a distance that requires a coach at six o’clock, a change of horses, and a journey into the night to traverse (51-52).


Jane Eyre

Spatial Triangulation: Jane Eyre's movements between Gateshead, Lowood and the poor house underpin the psychological dimensions of her character development

[Image by Nuwandalice under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


One partial answer is that such a distance makes it impossible for Jane to return home during her time at Lowood. Even when she becomes a teacher she earns only £15 per annum, and the cheapest return coach trip might cost £1.25, a month’s income (Barnum, n. pag.). She is restricted by the world in which she finds herself – and of course her determination to nonetheless escape is part of what readers admire.

Yet much as good game design entails giving the illusion of free choice even while the system is actually influencing how players pursue narrative, so the specific geographical relation of these two places in Jane Eyre disguises the fact that Jane’s decisions to stay or leave are not entirely self-willed but fulfil the criteria of the plot Brontë has mapped out. A more significant answer for the distance between Gateshead and Lowood emerges just when Jane is about to depart Lowood for Thornfield, and receives a visit from Bessie. She reports that recently “a Mr. Eyre came to Gateshead and wanted to see you; Missis said you were at school fifty miles off; he seemed so much disappointed, for he could not stay: he was going on a voyage to a foreign country, and the ship was to sail from London in a day or two” (Brontë 107). We know coach travel takes a day, making it impossible for Mr Eyre to find Jane and return in the two days before he sails. Thus the relative distance between two places, seemingly innocuous enough, serves the ends of narrative retardation (Sternberg 161). Potential future events in the plot are hinted at – why would Mr Eyre want Jane? and why does Jane bother to tell us in the discourse now unless it will prove important in the plot later on? – but their actualisation is delayed until their significance can be revealed at fortuitous later point. What makes this temporal relation possible is the spatial relation of Gateshead to Lowood. While Brontë could of course just as easily specify Lowood as being 200 miles away, and have Mr Eyre sail in eight days (thus having the same retardative effect in the plot), it is surely the absolutely minimal timing with which Mr Eyre misses Jane – a mere day in her long life – that makes the withholding more frustrating and the eventual reconciliation more satisfying. Jane is sufficiently far from Gateshead to be unable to return herself, yet sufficiently close to ensure Mr Eyre is minimally unable to reach her. His inability to get there in time is as coincidental as it could be, but also credible.



At this point, the objection might be raised that thinking about plot and space in this way can become an exercise in counterfactuality: if a novel had been set or plotted differently, it would not be the same novel; and even if it had been spatialized differently, alternative temporal structures could have restored the plot of coincidences. Thus we return to the overarching role that time allegedly has as the arbiter of fiction. Yet this perhaps ignores the processes of writing. While novelists often tell us they “hear a voice” and want to follow its story, no character is an entirely free agent. Like players of games, characters need to experience limits to their movements, in order for them (and readers) to experience the frustrations and pleasures of overcoming these. Spatiality is an intimate part of the fiction and friction of plotting, and the a priori way in which game space conditions game narratives reminds us of the integrity of this link. So too, as this essay has outlined, spatial constraints in the story world are then “solved” in various ways in the plot depending on the genre’s conventions; genre is thus a kind of design engine.

The implications of making an analogy between game worlds and story worlds are of course more than can be fully covered here. One might also justifiably pursue the differences between the two. For instance, one characteristic particular to gaming is that players are often forced to re-navigate the same space repeatedly as punishment for failure. Novels, by contrast, make use of devices such as ellipsis or summary (Bal 102) to accelerate a character’s (re)progression through a space. Nevertheless, the fact that space is so foundational to the way games tell stories, and indeed to games as a genre, should at least force us back to see the importance of spaces in books, as well as that occupied by books.


CITATION: Alistair Brown, "What Game Worlds Can Teach Us About Literary Worlds," Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 31 May 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v5.2.01.


Dr Alistair Brown is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, teaching courses on the arts and literature, and a Postdoctoral Teaching Assistant in English at Durham University, where he also edits the impact blog Research in English At Durham. His PhD on Demonic Fictions: Cybernetics and Postmodernism was completed in 2009. 


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Barnum, Deb. “Thoughts on Travel in Sense and Sensibility.” Jane Austen in Vermont. N. p., 2010. Web. 18 May 2016: https://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/thoughts-on-travel-in-sense-a.

Brown, Alistair. "Ulysses as an RPG." Alluvium. N. p., 2012. Web. 18 May 2016: http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.5.02.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Dannenberg, Hilary P. Coincidence and Counterfactuality [Electronic Book] : Plotting Time and Space in Narrative Fiction. Lincoln, Neb. : University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Print.

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The_atm. “Is Red Dead Redemption Just GTA with Horses?” IGN. N. p., 2013. Web. 17 May 2016: http://uk.ign.com/blogs/the_atm/2013/06/26/is-red-dead-redemptio.



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