In another post that will make me say, “I don’t play as many games as it sounds like, I swear”, I’d like to talk about a game I played recently, and choice-based gaming in general, and (of course) how it might intersect with books and fan communities.
Bear with me—
Storytelling exists in all kinds of forms. Plays, comics, games, books, movies, stand-up—and they’re not interchangeable. I once saw an interview with comedian Bo Burnham where he talks about his frustration re: every popular story being cut and pasted into other media (x) which resonated with me. Stories are stories—but the story you can tell in a video game is different from the story you can tell in a book. The story you can tell in a book is different from what you can do in a comic. My tiny bit of experience writing comics with artist friends (more on this one day, maybe, hopefully—) frustrated me because suddenly I was forced to be brief and remember that each panel can only really contain a single gesture. You’re limited in this completely new way—but you also have new tools at your disposal. Each medium has special features that (when utilised) give the story told that extra oomph.
Life is Strange is a video game that tells a story—and the video game mechanics it uses to tell the story enhances it, instead of being incidental. A Life is Strange book or movie might be good, but it wouldn’t be great. To summarise (no spoilers, promise), LiS follows a girl (Max) who starts having realistic dreams about a cataclysmic event striking the coastal Oregon town where she attends university, soon after which she learns she can rewind time after instinctively using the power to stop another girl from being shot. Throughout the game, you make decisions—whether to take a phonecall, or report a fellow student, or steal money from the principal’s office, etc. The game segues through soft indie music and gold-washed beach scenes, yet there’s a constant feeling of dread, both from knowing Max’s vision might be coming and from a sense of personal responsibility for all decisions made up till that point.
If the game is successful in roping you in, you come out of it feeling like you’ve been through the wringer—like you’ve actually lived life as Max for a while, and like her choices had real weight (probably because you pondered them so long as the choice screen flickered in front of you). A book can’t do that. No matter how great a writer is, there’s just no way to include video game mechanics in a book—and why would you want to? Well… at the very end of Life is Strange, there is one big choice that totally splits player experience. No matter what you pick, the other option is 100% different. The big leagues of “choose your own adventure” (or “choose your own trauma”, to be honest)—and it reminded me of…
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of fanfiction, it’s basically writing done by fans, involving characters and/or settings from an already-existing story. For instance, a fanfic might imagine Harry Potter falling in love with someone other than Ginny, but it might also be a story about an original character going to Hogwarts after Harry has already left, or a closer look into some time in Harry’s life we already know happens but don’t know the details of. I’ve been aware of fanfiction since I was 11 years old, and sometimes involved with it, and seeing the ways stories can be reimagined does affect the way you interact with them. Now, when I see a TV show and hate the way something was done, I don’t accept it and move on; I use my imagination to fix it in my head—and so do millions of others. Sometimes, when they care enough, they write it out for others to read. Fanfiction is the bread and butter of a community of people who love a story—or some aspect of a story—enough to want to change it, or linger there longer, or get more of the same story.
To me, it seems like fanfiction answers a need we all have for our own choices and preferences to matter to a story like they do in a video game, even in media where they don’t matter. We can’t choose love interests for the main character of a book like we can in a Dragon Age game—but we might want to. However, being aware of this penchant for reinterpretation is a double-edged sword. In my own stories, I find myself wanting to leave things open, for people to decide for themselves the details of how characters feel. This ambiguity feels good at the time, because I like reinterpretations, and I like fanfiction, and I can see multiple ways for my characters to exist and have fulfilling lives—but it weakens the narrative in the long run. You can’t tell a story with zero commitment. You don’t have to spell everything out, or write a nineteen-years-later epilogue where everyone is neatly paired off, children in tow (cough), but decisions have to be made. What looks to me like room for interpretation could look like handwaving to readers. I have to remember I trust in my own vision, my own characters. Just because I love seeing a story split into 100 different directions online, doesn’t mean that’s the norm.
Life is strange, but fiction is shaped by a vision someone had: to tell a story, and to tell it in a specific way. Even in games, your decisions are bounded by what the writers wanted you to experience. You can’t have it all; a story can only do so many things. I might look at the ending of Life is Strange with envy, wishing I was allowed to write two endings to my books, to cater to different people—but unless that becomes a thing people do, I’ll just look like a noncommittal weirdo who doesn’t have faith in the story she’s telling.
It’s fun to think about the things you can do in one medium but not another. It’s important to remember what tools you have available, and use them to the fullest—but in the meantime, I’ll probably continue to be caught between possible story endings like a diner at a buffet choosing between desserts, wanting to return to my table with all of them. Since I can’t, I’ll have to choose and hope for the best. And if people don’t like it, well—there’s always fanfiction.