Novels Like Games (and vice versa)

Been catching up on the podcast (and have been away from the site for a while, so apologies if this post as been made already; I tried looking), just got through the Patreon question one. I want to talk about one of the questions a bit more: Which novels best capture a game-like experience? And in the vein of how the question was actually answered, which games are the most like novels?

Obviously there's a lot of wiggle room in what exactly makes something game- or novel-like. Are games, at their core, repetitive tests of motor skill? Are they explorations of space? Sometimes games are just words! But are games which are solely rendered in text similar in any other way to the construction of a novel?

Novels are collections of prose. But sometimes they include poetry. Sometimes they include passages designed to resemble nonfiction. Sometimes they're all academic citations. Can a more traditional novel, whose form we are so used to (or the experience of reading something like it), be recreated in a game without simply displaying written prose on the screen?

I haven’t even played _that many_ games, and have read fewer novels, so this is of course just my limited perspective.


I recently read _House of Leaves_, which I don't think was very game-like in most respects (though trudging through filler to get to the good parts certainly sounds familiar), but [**SPOILERS** **SPOILERS** **SPOILERS**] it struck me how much the house felt like a video game space. _Antichamber_ came to mind (a funny pair, _Antichamber_ rendered entirely in white and the HOL house in black), although what I was thinking about the most while reading was just how big the rooms in HOL are—these reminded me the most of my recent experience with VRChat, in which user-created content sometimes exceeds the conventional dimensions of 3D video game spaces. In non-VR games perspective only really becomes three-dimensional when the player or the camera are moving—in VR your head is always moving at least minimally, creating a constant parallax effect, and showing you just how big everything is. And in VR, where there's no (literal) atmosphere or mist or whatever to even slightly blur your vision of distant big things, I felt an unnatural kind of spatial relationship between me and the walls of these gigantic rooms I was in (seemingly a few square miles, at times). Another game that created this same feeling was _Outer Wilds_, in which the player's constant state of drifting through space makes them aware in the same way of how big and far away things are.

That's how reading about the house in _House of Leaves_ made me feel. Maybe this isn't an instance of a novel being like games (or vice versa) as much as it's an example of something both media can capture in their own way.


Games being like novels (or the ones which I have read, which again is not many) is trickier, especially if this examination avoids visual NOVELS or games strictly focused on story/more novelistic elements of story. _Lost Odyssey_ is interesting in that it’s mostly a normal adventure RPG which contains written short stories. There’s no interaction during these segments besides advancing the text—doesn’t immediately seem like an interesting use of the form. But the way they lend context to the rest of the game feels somewhat like how the less straightforward material in _Moby-Dick_ creates meaning in the « main » plot aboard the _Pequod_: the story in _Lost Odyssey_ isn’t simply about a group of outcasts going on a Final Fantasy adventure. The story _is_ those short stories, and the Final Fantasy game gives those a structure and image and musical flavor. The story in _Moby-Dick_ is a lot of things that I am not qualified to distill into two sentences, but I feel like there’s something similar going on there.

I feel also like open-world games capture something about a novel you might not fully understand the first time reading: you can glide through an open-world game and do the main quest without really getting a grasp of the surrounding world. Similarly, you can read something like _The Scarlet Letter_ (as some of us did when we were really too young for it), pick up on surface-level details, and technically « finish » the book. In the same way you might not take a high schooler’s reading of _The Scarlet Letter_ very seriously, you might not take a person who only skimmed the « main » content of an open-world game at their word.


How did you all understand this question? Did it bring any games or novels immediately to mind? I want to hear about them!


@captain#6912 Which novels best capture a game-like experience?

Am I stupid to go with the obvious [gamebook/CYOA]( answer?

I would think what defines a game are ① rules to follow and ② choices to make (and ③ an end-state but that goes without saying when reading a book). So, at least from the perspective of their writers’ intents, I would say these novels are close to being “game designed”:

  • - *Whodunnits* (well-written ones that actually give the reader a chance to guess);
  • - novels like *In a Grove* and *The Moonlit Road* (*Rashōmon*-type structure);
  • - _[La Disparition]( (*A Void* in English), [*Exercices de Style*]( and pretty much any work from the [Oulipo]( movement in French literature. I am sure there are regional equivalents in different cultures/languages?
  • Yeah I thought of oulipo/nouveau roman when this question came up too. I think the answer is Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar: a novel that has a couple of author-recommended chapter orders, but the reader is encouraged to jump around however they choose and even skip sections if they want.

    It doesn't have choices in the way a CYOA book does, in that you are embodying the protagonist and make binary decisions towards a conclusion, but Hopscotch does kind of give you room to tool around in the story and among the characters, so you come out of it with a kind of experience that balances a literary novel experience with the kind of feeling you have with something like A Mind Forever Voyaging or The Last Express, where you're given this unusual participant/observer perspective. It also has a generosity and good humor about it that some other postmodern novels lack, and that sense of 'hey go around and mess around with this cool stuff I made" is a very video game experience to me.

    I'm also thinking that the continuum of novel->videogame is interrupted any time a game requires an appreciable degree of technical input/obstacle surmounting. So for example: playing Myst and getting stuck on a bunch of puzzles is a video game, but playing Myst and breezing through the puzzles is a novel-like experience.

    I want to make a note of the impossible architecture in “House Of Leaves” and how a virtual environment is like the only way you could depict some of the impossible things in that book. Because an MC Escher painting doesnt change…

    I think VR would be an excellent format for an adaptation of "House Of Leaves" so that you could really drive home the claustrophobia and feeling of being lost in a shifting impossible maze.

    The book also makes a salient point about the entomology of labyrinth being akin to "labor trap". Something that forces you to exhaust yourself in your efforts to solve it.

    As characters get further into the labyrinth the book itself becomes a bit of a "labor trap". Forcing you to recon with its bizarre formatting. In game terms you could see this as the "difficulty" of the book increasing.



    I think it could be reasonable to describe videogames as "labor traps" of a kind. Which I guess means you could think of them as labyrinths, in a way.

    And the meta literature approach is something I love. A character curating the unfinished work of another character. Like The Beginners Guide. Speaking of, "walking simulators" vs a "traditional game" seems like "standard novel" vs "CYOA". The point in above post about getting stuck or breezing through Myst being very different is I think think relevant to what I'm trying to say about how walking simulators are like novels. Because they railroad you through the story with no choice. So do a lot of games of other genre's but often there is the illusion that there are more choices then there actually are. Walking simulators dispense with that illusion entirely.

    Someone described Jorge Luis Borges‘s “Labyrinths” as the best book on game design, and i’m inclined to agree. A lot of the short stories in there feel like games, especially The Library of Babel

    I've spent a lot of time with a few “rougelikes” (whatever that means) that contain procedurally generated labyrinths that are never the same twice, so the concepts seem pretty connected to me.

    I feel like mentioning some!

  • -

    Three Dead Astronauts, the third book on the Borne series by Jeff Vandermeer plays with structure and is designed to be read as a time loop (the very end links with the beginning etc.). It uses a lot of presentation and formal play, same as Danielewski‘s stuff. I would also say that the whole Borne series feels like a videogame world, a very good videogame world, I’d love to see Arkane‘s or Obsidian’s take on it, but the third one is the one that demands more participation from the reader, so to speak. In this regard, a suvival horror game adapting the Southern Reach trilogy would also be fantastic.

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    _The City and The City_ by China Mieville. I read this book because of a videogame, in fact. A couple of months ago the good people of ZA/UM did this big post on their Steam page detailing their influences. This book was on this list and not only I see how they were inspired by it, but I was left out thinking it was an amazing novel. I think the Bas Lag trilogy would be an awesome videogame too.

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    _Invisible Cities_ by Italo Calvino is basically evocative videogame spaces: the novel. Such a great book and interesting read. It is exactly on the same frequency of those Borges stories mentioned above.

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    _Morel's Invention_ by Adolfo Bioy Casares. This one feels so *right* as a videogame it is insulting no one has adapted it yet. Bioy Casares was a friend of Borges, which at one point said he was outright envious of this short novel. Read it!

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    _The Invincible_ by Stanislav Lem. Another very obvious one. So obvious that in fact a videogame adaptation was announced just a month ago, by ex-CD Projekt RED staff no less.


    The question made me think of Borges too, but I'm wondering how Borges/oulipo/Nabakov etc are “video game”-like rather than “game”-like as are riddles, jokes, thought-experiments, etc.

    There is a direct comparison wrt to a JLB story if anyone has time and is inclined

    overlooked that mention above but want to echo the recommendation for Morel's Invention. heck of a good pick

    @yeso#6988 Well, the OP did not specify « video games » so personally I took it as a more general thought experiment.

    @JoJoestar#6986 Thanks but... Uh... Why are these _obviously_ game-like? Ahem I know the answer of course but I am not sure how to explain to my friend here next to me so I’d dig some pointers to help him, he’d appreciate that very much!

    Gideon the Ninth gave me a real video gamey feeling when I read it - particularly something like Danganronpa, with a bunch of interesting characters locked together in a strange setting trying to figure out some kind of central mystery, cooperating and competing with each other. The sequel has a “none pizza with left beef” joke in the middle of what is otherwise a very serious scene, so, also recommending that one.

    @chazumaru#6961 Right, oh man, I can‘t believe I wasn’t even thinking about these. They invented Mass Effect (for what that's worth)! I like the idea too of a whodunnit being like a game—demanding a more direct kind of narrative participation from the reader. I wonder if there would be any interesting comparison to make between Oulipo and certain « retro » indie games, ones made using the technology of yesteryear (design constraints) in order to say something contemporary.

    @yeso#6965 _Hopscotch_ sounds very intriguing: I don't think I've read anything that follows that game-like design ethos of playing around with the material in a reader/player-directed way. Cool!
    Playing _Myst_ and getting stuck on the puzzles is certainly a video game, but are there books that a reader might « get stuck » in the middle of and refuse to continue with? Probably only if you've got a really neurotic reader.

    @Moon#6972 Oh, man! I didn't know anyone had actually recreated any of HOL in VR! I agree—I think it's very suited to a virtual environment and that a video game adaptation of some kind could work (probably not a direct adaptation of the plot of « The Navidson Record », but some kind of companion piece). Excellent point about labyrinths.

    @JoJoestar#6986 I admittedly haven't read the entirety of any of Vandermeer's books, but the _Annihilation_ movie definitely gave me the sense that he understands the pacing/geography of video games (or at least that that story and some video games are structured similarly). The lighthouse in particular felt like a great location. I should read some Vandermeer. Given my interest in spaces _Invisible Cities_ sounds pretty cool too. All of these do!

    @chazumaru#7037 I don‘t know if you mean just the ones I said were obvious or all of them? I guess I’ll have to go with all of them XD

    Anyway. Three Dead Astronauts feels game-like for the same reason House of Leaves does, it is a read that requires active participation by the reader in order to make sense of the story. That turns the story into something like a puzzle, a riddle, something you need get involved with in order to make sense, same as videogames.

    The City and the The City feels the same way a videogame taking place in an interesting space with a very peculiar culture and customs that you get to explore, investigate and learn about does. Take Sigil from Planescape Torment for example, Martinaise from Disco Elysium (the game it inspired) or maybe places like Rapture, Dunwall, City 17, etc.

    Invisible Cities is the equivalent of games that focus on lore and background, like Souls games, Fumito Ueda stuff or the already mentioned Bioshock. But it's also very easy to imagine an RPG game taking place in a space in which all the cities of the book exist, and you get to explore and experience directly as a traveller/visitor/adventurer, same as the narrator of the book.

    Finally, Morel's Invention, The Invincible and Annihilation, and also other books that just came to mind while writing this like the Mountains of Madness, the Randolph Carter saga and Quicksand House feel gamelike because of the point of view and how the story is presented. All of them are books about clearly defined protagonists (which makes easy to assume his/her pov) that explore unknown spaces that revolve around an also clearly defined core mystery. In The Invincible it is an expedition to another planet, in Morel's Invention an island in which weird stuff is happening, the rest of the books follow the same pattern. In these novels the story is uncovered by the meticulous exploration of the main character as he/she investigates and discovers new things that catch his/her attention. This, as you can imagine, follows the same pattern as a lot of videogames, specially in first person.

    @JoJoestar#7085 Thanks a lot! Now my friend here knows what to read for the holidays, that stupid dog.

    @chazumaru#7091 read Morel‘s Invention in a version other than English if you have the option, it got kind of manhandled in the USA. Still 100% worth reading in eng is that’s all that's available though

    I just finished my first playthrough of Disco Elysium last night, and in trying to describe how the experience made me feel, I‘ve been telling my friends that I’d rather rank Disco Elysium among the best novels I've ever read, as opposed to (sullying it by) comparing it to other video games.

    To be clear, I consider Disco Elysium to be a masterpiece, so that's my own personal bias.

    Unpacking the reason why I feel this way has been a little difficult for me. But if I try and distill the experience of reading (and, this is key, enjoying) a novel, it's something akin to attending a staged performance such as No More Sleep, in that it's going on all around me. The differences are 1) that I can control the pace by choosing how quickly to read, and when to pause, and 2) my imagination is doing heavy lifting, which is not something games typically require. Usually they just lay it all out there on the table for you.

    Disco Elysium also let me control the pace. I could pick it up and put it down whenever I so chose. It also requires the player to infer and therefore imagine a lot. It won't spell everything out for you, and you can "fail" constantly, thereby leaving you to imagine what might have happened, had the dice rolled differently.

    But I guess the deepest connection between the novel experience and the Disco Elysium experience was the dreamlike quality. The way in which the narrative flowed in a way that felt nonlinear, yet always felt fully realized.

    I'm struggling to get at something here. Maybe someone else who's played Disco Elysium can help me. Are there enough people on here who've finished it to start a thread about that game?

    @whatsarobot#7135 I'd say Disco Elysium feels like a book because the text itself is of great literary quality. And not only it is a very good written videogame, but it uses that text in really smart ways from a game design perspective. Take the internal monolog or the different voices inside the protagonist head for example. The skill and idea system also weaves the text and literature into the game systems.

    Disco Elysium is hands down the best game I've played in 2020 (although it was released last year).

    Right, the internal monologue and dice roll and stats based mediation of emotion and cognition is a really interesting way to make a game out of I guess a literary kind of flow. You get not only game progress out of it, but character shading, and more just more text of a pretty good quality.

    what do you all think about how viewpoint works in literary fiction vs a game like Disco or for a more static example, the Witcher III? Second person narrative doesn’t really work in fiction, but when you’re moving a character like disco cop or Gerald around and guiding them through story choices, are you ID’ing with what they do to a degree or are they more solidly walled-off in the fiction of the game? Apologies for not explaining my thinking too well here.



    Second person narrative doesn’t really work in fiction, but when you’re moving a character like disco cop or Gerald around and guiding them through story choices, are you ID’ing with what they do to a degree or are they more solidly walled-off in the fiction of the game

    _Spec Ops: The Line_ has entered the chat

    I like second person. Reminds me of Calvino's _On A Winters Night A Traveler_. Where it's like you're being told what you are doing and by reading you are being taken through a series of actions and having things done to you. Not a character, but YOU. And by choosing to continue to read you are sort of consenting to it. "YOU" are the character in a second person story. I think videogames come close to this sometimes when they directly address the player sitting there holding the controller,
    usually in a "fourth wall break" fashion.

    While the books themselves aren‘t particularly gamey, I feel like there’s something fundamentally game-like in the meta-narrative of fantasy/sci-fi authors like Michael Moorcock who wrote stories in a shared universe/multiverse. The order you read the books in is interactive, and will determine what shared elements or callbacks you get, how you first hear about various characters and in what context you first learn about shared plot elements. While the stories themselves are linear, piecing together the meta-narrative feels similar to piecing together the story in something like Dark Souls or a walking sim.