The Literature of Digital Gaming: Ergodicity as Test and Plot Device

After a lot of difficult internal conflict, I settled on focusing on Gone Home, a brilliant and important work by the independent studio Fullbright Games. For anyone who enjoys narrative digital games, or anyone who is interested in trying a digital game for the first time, I highly recommend Gone Home. Not only is it a viscerally enjoyable experience, but it truly pushes digital gaming in a new direction, one that should be both recognizable and surprisingly familiar to readers of literature.

Importantly, Gone Home is a mechanically simple game. This is not a requirement for a literary video game, but it is helpful for a number of reasons. First of all, by minimizing the mechanics, the game leaves the player free to focus on exploration and experiencing the narrative without worrying about things like score, hit points, or tests of dexterity. Second, it makes the game considerably more accessible to less-experienced gamers, which I’ll touch on in a bit. Finally, it provides evidence that a game is not necessarily defined by its mechanics, an argument frequently encountered in the writings of earlier ludologists. The mechanics of Gone Home serve the sole purpose of supporting the narrative, not the other way around.

The concept of accessibility it an important thing to consider. Aarseth defined ergodic literature, of which digital games are an example, as literature that requires non-trivial effort for engagement. While many of Aarseth’s arguments are problematic, the concept of ergodic literature is helpful in understanding the difference between digital games and more passive forms of narrative, like novels and film. While certainly one must engage in some effort to read a novel (turning pages, deciphering text), that effort is relatively trivial and transparent. Digital games, however, require active participation; this non-trivial effort is part of what defines the digital game. With that as a defining characteristic, many digital games have traditionally focused on the non-trivial aspect. These games place emphasis on pushing the limits of the player to pass the test of non-trivial activity. This might be a challenge of dexterity, or hand-eye coordination, or reflexes, or tactical thinking. Regardless, the player’s ability to pass these tests is usually represented by a numeric score, or some other reward system. As players improve these skills, subsequent games require greater challenges while assuming a basic level of competency. This continuum of increasing difficulty makes gaming more intimidating to new players, and limits the audience for these types of games.

Games like Gone Home, as well as other games I’ve mentioned in previous posts, use the non-trivial activity aspect of digital literature quite differently. Instead of presenting a test for the player to either pass or fail, Gone Home requires non-trivial activity that is easy to pass, but allows the player to more directly experience the exploration, discovery, and decision-making aspects of the narrative. One cannot fail at any task in Gone Home; the game isn’t over until the player decides to turn it off. Instead, the player is invited to engage in behavior that mimics both the journey of discovery of the player’s avatar, as well as that of the protagonist (interestingly, these are not the same character).

This innovative use of the ergodicity inherent in digital games is only part of what makes Gone Home an engaging piece of modern literature. Next time, I’ll explore the narrative of the game directly, and engage in a critical examination of the game itself. There will be spoilers, so if you want to play first, do it before March 28th!

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