Books vs. Video Games: Round 1: FIGHT!



So as not to incur the wrath of the Mass Effect 3 people who keep visiting my literary blog for some reason, I need to make a few points clear: I don’t want any comments stating that I am comparing apples to oranges. Yes, the mediums are different, but I can still compare the two (example: apples are crunchy, oranges not so much). That leads to my second point: Don’t bother telling me it’s all my opinion; duh, I already know that. Everything is opinion. Third: Don’t bother telling me I can enjoy both. It adds nothing to the discussion and I know that already, and I do (enjoy both).

Let me also begin by stating I am a gamer. While I don’t play as much as I used to, I frequented the arcade every weekend before home consoles were a thing (Atari doesn’t count). I remember chugging 15 dollars worth of tokens in one sitting just to beat Adon from Street Fighter (1, not 2). I owned the Atari 2600, the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and every Nintendo console since (this Christmas I got the Wii U). I owned the Sega Saturn, Sega Dreamcast, Playstation 1 and 2, an X-Box and the X-Box 360. I’ve spent close to ten grand upgrading various computers just to play games. My first was a Commodore Amiga with 500 Kilobytes of RAM. Long story short, I know games. But I also know books. I love both, but in the end, books edges out games for me by a slim margin. Here’s why:

Books have better stories: Most games have very little story or none at all, or if they attempt something grand, the plot is often nonsensical (I am looking at you, Japanese RPG’s). Even games with great story telling (Eternal Darkness, Metal Gear Solid, Red Dead Redemption) typically manage to meet only the basic criteria for written fiction. As gamers, we often give video games a free pass in the story department, as if we cannot expect too much from something that requires colored buttons or a keyboard. Sure, put Deus Ex Machina up against 50 Shades of Grey, and I’ll take the action RPG any day, but we’re talking about the majority here. Put it this way, a good story in a game is a plus, but in a book it’s mandatory. That’s all the book has to offer. Story always ranks high on gamers’ list of priorities. It’s always a series like Mass Effect that gets people riled up to the point where they’ll argue endlessly on other people’s blogs and make YouTube videos to prove a point. Story matters to gamers, but the best stories aren’t found in games. Now you may be thinking: Books have better stories now, but just you wait until the future; games are getting better at it everyday, and I agree. But story in gaming will always be limited to the strictures of play. No matter the game, every developer needs to give the player something to do, some way to interact with the images on the screen. But this is a double edged sword, because the freedom of control also limits what can happen in a story. Imagine a game based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. SPOILER ALERT: The story ends badly, really badly. Not only that, but the protagonist, Hester Prynne, doesn’t do a damn thing about it (Mass Effect fanatics who hate nihilistic endings would be very angry about this). Hester Prynne is, in essence, a powerless character that no gamer would put up with (again, see Mass Effect 3). It’s a no-win situation, a lose-lose scenario. Powerlessness is the theme of the novel, but you can’t build a game around powerlessness or quiet, internal suffering.

Books are easy: I love a good challenge, but I often find gaming to be a chore. The first time I booted up Skyrim, I was blown away. The visuals were absolutely stunning. But as first impressions wore off, after the detailed graphics and open ended world failed to wow me, I wanted to know more about my character. What was her motivation? Why should I care about anyone or anything in this Viking inspired world? And why do people keep calling her naked when I can’t even take off her underwear? In time, the story devolved to little more than collecting junk so I could trade it for money, so I could then buy upgrades to go back into the wild to kill more things and collect more junk. Just as with Mass Effect, the cut scenes tell a story, but those scenes do nothing but mask the repetition of game play. I often wished I could just skip the itemizing, buying, selling, trading, and not to mention clicking the right trigger until the monster on the screen keels over, and just get to the damn story. Some games, like Final Fantasy, are even worse. I remember spending close to a hundred hours (that I’ll never get back) in Greece trying to beat FFVII (considered the best in the series). Unfortunately, I wasn’t a high enough level to get to the end, and when I returned home from vacation, the stupid European save card didn’t work. YouTube aside, I’ll never know how it ends. Had it been a book, I could have taken the thing on the plane and read all about Cloud defeating Sephiroth.

Books are educational: Yes, I’ve learned a lot from games, like real world racing techniques from Gran Turismo and Roman war strategy from Centurion (really old game, don’t bother looking it up). But learning things from games is the exception. How much real world knowledge do you get playing Halo, Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter? If anything, you might come away with a very skewed understanding of life. Someone who has only experienced World World II via Call of Duty might think winning a war is aiming well and taking cover. Read a book about World War II, on the other hand, and you will no doubt be better informed about the politics, economy, geography, the supply lines, and all the other factors which determined the war’s outcome. Play almost any Sci-Fi shooter, and you will learn next to nothing about astronomy. There may be a bit of real science in Mass Effect, but it doesn’t compare to what you would learn from Ben Bova, Arthur C. Clarke, or Isaac Asimov. Oh, and don’t try punching and kicking a car to pieces, you’ll only break your fists.

Books are numerous: There are more than a million books in the world. Anything you can conceive of, you’ll find it, and plenty of it. Enjoy gritty, dark fantasy with real world undertones? There are enough authors churning out that kind of work, on a monthly basis, to keep you occupied for life. Games worth playing, on the other hand, are often rare; and if you have very specific tastes, say, a sexy vampire romance set in the 18th century Europe, good luck finding a game version of it (or a decent one at that).

Books are timeless: Remember how cool Doom was? With its amazing 360 degree first person perspective, its array of guns and all those scary demons coming after you—a true video game classic. But wait. How often do you play Doom? Or any video game classic, like Pong, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga? I am sure there are a lot of nostalgic gamers who will be leaving me comments like, “I love Doom! I play it every night!” But let’s be realistic. Doom is old and outdated. What made it popular, cutting edge technology, is cutting edge no more. Gamers today spend way more time on Halo, Gears of War or Bioshock. But someday, Halo will be where Doom is now, looking old and outdated, and only the few nostalgic people who want to relive their youth will be playing it. Look at it another way. Go into a game store. Any game store. Do they sell Doom? Probably not. If they do, it’s like ten cents. Now go into any bookstore. Do they still sell Frankenstein? Tarzan? Lord of the Rings? They sure do. What’s more, though Frankenstein was written in 1818, it frequently sells at new book prices, because a good story told well is unaffected by advances in book making technology. I like to know that when I am an old fart, I can still teach my grandkids about the literary classics, which will hold up just as well as whatever new novel about sexy vampires has hit the shelves. Zelda on Wii, on the other hand, will not look so impressive compared to the holographic-projection contact lenses they’ll be wearing.

Bottom line: I love games and I love books, but if I were stranded on an island, let’s say it’s a Greek island with a beautiful beach, and I could only choose to have a copy of Lord of the Rings or The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, I think I’d go with the book, or better yet, plenty of pens and paper to make my own books. Besides, no electricity.

Post Script: I hate to have to do this again, but this post is closed to comments. I had hoped to engage in some lively discussion regarding the merits of books vs. the merits of games, but unfortunately, I have to deal with immature, uneducated, and obsessive fans of Mass Effect 3, who plague my blog like a cancer. I never find this kind of radical thinking when I discuss books with readers. The flexibility of the blank page and the range of story telling it allows makes readers much more open minded to differences of opinion and perspective. I have yet to deal with enraged Game of Thrones fans who disagree with my criticisms; if anything, I’ll get a simple, “Well, I enjoyed it,” or “I didn’t feel that way” and that’s it. Even in college, no teacher or student ever tried to prove a story good or bad.

As for Mass Effect, I have never met people with such devotion outside of religious debate, abortion, the gun debate, and perhaps the Star Wars movies. For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone should care about a video game to such an extent. I think of the hundreds of wasted hours and the thousands of keystrokes lent to the task of proving something that cannot be proven, and I am saddened by the poor state of humanity. It would seem that in this country there is an overall lack of critical thinking skills, and that in our schools, we need to start teaching logic and stress the scientific method. One of my friends is studying to be a philosophy professor and this issue comes up all the time.

For me, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is about as important as a bag of potato chips. I understand that people have strong feelings because fiction is a powerful thing—it’s one of the themes of my blog, but obsessing over an action RPG like ME3 is like obsessing over the latest episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. It’s juvenile, plain and simple. I agree that the ending could have been better, but it’s hard for me to care when I never took it seriously for a moment. As I mentioned in this post, story in games suffer from the strictures of game play, and that is no more apparent than in Mass Effect 3. Imagine a novel where every single conflict boiled down to a shootout. How would that read?

Shepard ducked for cover. He pulled out his pistol, squeezed off a number of rounds. The alien from behind the crates on the opposite end of the hanger fired back. “More shooting . . .” Shepard grumbled to himself. Is there any end to it? If there was only another way to deal with conflicts. Why couldn’t they get some robots to do the job? Or buy some mechs? Hell, Earth had remote drones in the 20th century, yet here he was on foot, Captain of the Normandy, the last great hope for the planet Earth and his entire species . . . dodging energy blasts and without a helmet! To his left, Shepard could see Miranda, the love of his life, lying dead on the floor. It didn’t phase him much since it happened all the time. But without her help, he knew, he’d lack the fire power to fend off the Reaper onslaught. Quickly, he ran over her body, and just as quickly she jumped back up and started shooting again. Thank God, Shepard thought. 

Meanwhile, back on the Normandy, the rest of Shepard’s crew sat at their desks, staring blankly at their computer screens, unable to help their commander in any way. They were unable to violate “Einstein’s Third Law of Character Dispensation” which states that only three people can leave a spaceship, on foot, at any given time . . . even though, on occasion, they did leave the ship to go on shore leave on the Citadel. So maybe they were all just cowards, except when they weren’t . . .

See what I mean? If I wrote a story like that, I’d be laughed at by every editor, agent and publisher in the country. And yet, this is the great story preceding Mass Effect 3, the end of which somehow ruins the epic. Sorry, I never took it seriously from day one, which is why the finale did not ruin my life. It was a fun adventure. The graphics were nice. The action was intense. The story was existent, which is more than I can say for most games, and that was it.

If anything bothers me, it’s the fact that I have to define what opinion and subjective means, over and over, which may be symptomatic of a larger problem in our society. If people cannot even understand these fundamentals of critical thinking, how can they hope to apply themselves to the larger and more pressing issues plaguing our world?

Martin, Bakker and Rowling: Learning from the Best

I have been focusing on the final stretch of my book lately, the third and final edit of Ages of Aenya, which I hope to have completed by the middle of May. I cannot promise anything though, since I have young children and a restaurant. Whenever my two or eight year old gets the flu, which is often, my editing gets pushed back a week; when a cook doesn’t show up, another week, which is why it’s taken nearly 9 years to rewrite Aenya. Two years ago, I had no time for writing whatsoever, and then a midlife crisis hit and I decided it was worth the $70 a day to edit. That’s right, being an owner and manager, I have to pay someone to replace me, so the sacrifices I’ve made for Aenya include a lot of money.

Blogging is of secondary importance, but I can’t abandon it entirely, so here’s something I think useful to fellow writers: what I did after self-publishing my first book. I basically went on a reading binge, learning everything I could from every popular author at the time. I discovered that there is no right or wrong way to write, no absolutes a writer need follow, that styles and techniques differ drastically from one author to the next.  I also learned the pragmatic side to writing and publishing, that I could not ignore the modern literary world in favor of archaic styles I find personally enjoyable. While Homer and H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs count among my biggest influences, I cannot hope to emulate them without taking the present day into account; they wrote for a different time and audience and it’s doubtful The Iliad could find a publisher today. Readers nowadays want more fully realized settings, complex plots, and psychologically 3-dimensional characters—characters that step off the page and come alive. As I was reading, I made copious notes in a little binder. Here’s a short list of what I learned from some of today’s finest:

George R.R. Martin: I was reading Game of Thrones back in 2004 and couldn’t help but feel envy and even a little bit of intimidation. Martin is the undisputed king of world building. Any author would be hard pressed to create a setting as vivid and complex and as seemingly real as Westeros. In Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, every place and character has a history. Even the guard at the gate holding the spear is a character. Whether you choose to delve into the guard’s story or not, his dialogue and actions should stem from his background. Side note: the new HBO mini-series based on Martin’s novels, now in its 3rd season, features enough sex and gratuitous nudity to count as soft-core porn, which I find encouraging for a future naturist fantasy series like Ages of Aenya, where nudity would be the norm.

Scott Bakker: While not a fan of his book, The Darkness that Comes Before, with its gruesome violence and uber-dark antiheroes, I still found much to learn from Bakker. Namely, write the unexpected. You can never predict where his story will take you. Even his style is unconventional. Bakker’s sentences are short (often, short sentences are more potent) and easy to understand, yet his writing is at times beautiful (you don’t need to be obscure to be poetic) through his uses of metaphor. Get more creative with metaphors! Finally, a lot of his novel takes place inside the characters’ heads. While I often found this to be excessive in his book, a little bit of “internal dialogue” can go a long way to making the reader identify with your characters.

J.K. Rowling: Probably my favorite modern/successful author, Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was a surprising tearjerker. She accomplished this feat by understating the tragedy central to Harry’s story and character, by using subtlety to great effect (something I found the later books to be lacking). Her greatest strength, however, and the reason for the success of the Harry Potter franchise, is that you truly care about the characters. By the end of the story, Harry, Ron and Hermione have become close friends; the reader becomes, in a way, a fourth member of this trio. Incidentally, my book also has three main characters. I learned that if my readers can’t relate to Xandr, Thelana or Emma, they won’t care about anything else in the story, no matter how fantastic.

Khaled Hosseini: Lesser known on this list, Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, two novels set in modern day Afghanistan, is emotionally gripping and actually hard to put down. The realism and the power of the emotions at play is something I wish to capture in the fantasy genre. What I learned from Hosseini was: Make the story personal. Good stories are about people, not things.

This is by no means a complete list. I’ve read over seventy books since 2004 to get the widest possible perspective on the literary world, to understand what readers and current publishers want. I am still partial to classics like Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story from the 50’s and Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn from the 60’s, but reading newer publications has boosted my confidence and improved my writing. Hopefully, Martin, Bakker and Rowling will have unwittingly helped Ages of Aenya earn a place on the mantle of great literature.

Advice for Writers

Over the years, people have asked me, “Nick, how do you do it?” OK, actually, nobody has ever asked me that. Still, here are a few important lessons about writing which you won’t find in any class or textbook, which I will graciously share with you:

1. Great writers have the letter “R” in their name. Sound ludicrous? Just look at these names:

Dan BRown

F. Scott FitzgeRald

GeoRge R.R. MaRtin

H.P. LovecRaft

J.K. Rowling

J.R.R. Tolkien

R. Scott BakkeR

Rick Riordan

R.A. SalvatoRe

TeRRy Goodkind

William ShakespeaRe

Stephen R. King

Apparently, the more R’s the better. Also, it’s good if you can abbreviate your name with a bunch of letters.

2. Great writers have bad hair. The reasoning behind this is simple: great writers are too busy alleviating their sickness to think about their hair. This theorem also works in reverse; people with great hairstyles are bad writers, although there may be an exception for female writers as one of my feminist friends has pointed out.

3. Lastly, but just as important as the other two, great writers write their ass off. Literally. If you’re ass isn’t hurting when you get off that chair from editing at least two or three times a week, you won’t stand a chance at getting published (unless you’re Pamela Anderson).

If you’ve read my bio, this may seem like deja vu, because the same advice appeared there. I have since written an extensive new ending to my bio, which you can (and should) read by clicking the Bio link at the top of this blog. To make room for it, I had to ax this part, but since I hate to waste good material, I decided to recycle it by posting it here. 

N.R.R. Alimonos