A Tribute to the Old School: NES, SNES, and PS1 Games as Literature

Growing up, I had many friends whose parents did not want them playing video games. I am thankful that my parents made no such rules. Admittedly, the many hours my brother and I poured into Radical Psycho Machine Racing (1991) represents a significant portion of my childhood that I will never get back–but it was also a supremely good time that niether he nor I will ever forget. RPM Racing aside, the formative effect of video games upon me, and their contribution to my current love of literature and art has been monumental.

The Opera House of Final Fantasy VI (1994)

Talk to her and she will quote Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters–the Potion Shop Witch (Zelda: A Link to the Past)

By the time I was 11 I had journeyed to distant countries to take in opera, experienced the Shakespearean witches’ incantation, and killed more than my share of basilisks, chimeras, lamias, and gorgons. From whence came all these cultured experiences? The Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

When I first encountered John Keats’ “Lamia” in university, it was not without first having faced the beast many times in Final Fantasy IV (1991).

For me, this is the one that started it all. Dragon Warrior (1986), helped to develop my sense of wonder and adventure–the very reason I read and write literature to this day.

I am currently a high school English teacher, with a Master’s degree in English Literature, and a couple of published scholarly essays to my name. Why did I ever get into literature? It certainly wasn’t because I had a natural love of reading. My first literary experiences were the cinematic sequences of Nintendo and Super Nintendo Role Playing Games. As a teenager I did not read for fun. But then, one day, after completing Final Fantasy IX, I found myself longing for more fantasy fiction so I made a trip to my local library, and thus a lifelong reader was born.

Gustave Dore’s Engraving for Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Not only is the colouring the same as in Dore’s engraving, check out the tilt of the mast. And all of that is not to mention the obvious textual allusions in the game itself–Illusion of Gaia (1994).

In grade 12, I had a theory that literature had to be unduly vapid, and punctiliously verbose to qualify as “Literature.” I believed “Classics” were academia’s way of putting the rest of us in our place. Read this, they would say, if you understand it you can pass English class, and if you pretend to enjoy it you can join our ranks. But this all changed in grade 12, when I was first introduced to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As I read this poem, I realized I had already experienced many of its tropes and plot elements—in a video game. I had already walked the decks of that skeletal ship and lived through the attendant loneliness. I had already stood among Gustave Dore’s engravings of the poem, and I had done all of this when, at 13, I played through Illusion of Gaia (1994) for the Super Nintendo. I first encountered Shakespeare’s weird sisters in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991). I was enchanted by opera because I had attended one in Final Fantasy VI (1994). I early developed a love of Monet because, while still a teenager, I had lived inside an impressionist painting (The Temporal Vortex in Chrono Cross [2000]).

The impressionistic Temporal Vortext of Chrono Cross (2000)

I can also thank video games for my early metaphysical bent. By the time I was twenty, I had questioned the meaning of existence more times than I care to count—Square-Enix’ Soul Blazer (1992) , Secret of Mana (1993), Chrono Trigger (1995), and the entire Final Fantasy series’ account for much of this. I may not have known the words teleology, ontology, or existentialism yet, but I had already asked the major questions associated with these branches of philosophy.

All of this is not to say that we should stick controllers in the hands of the next generation and hope for the best. Certainly, not all games are created equal. This is why I have always loved Role Playing Games (that genre that prized character and story when all others eschewed them). Don’t get me wrong, I love other games too. I have played more than 1200 competitive games of StarCraft II, and I was ranked in the top 400 East Coast Warcraft III players for a long time. But, I would not argue that these experiences did anything to make me a better person.

The ominous “death screen” of Chrono Trigger, begging the question of whether we choose our future.

Literature has the power to transform us. By experiencing other places, times, and personalities, I believe that we actually can become more thoughtful, tolerant, and understanding people. Today, many genres are using story in the way that only RPGs used to. My challenge, is that as much as we might enjoy our endless matches of StarCraft, League of Legends, or Call of Duty, that we alsotake some time to enjoy video games as literature—to experience the story of someone other than ourselves and, hopefully, to enlarge our own understandings and sympathies as a result.

10 responses to “A Tribute to the Old School: NES, SNES, and PS1 Games as Literature

  1. I like to hide. The older I get the more I like to be alone. I feel moments of desperate loneliness where I want to reach out and talk but in the end I retreat to media. I am not convinced of the value of games but I am also unconvinced of the veracity of my own convictions.

    This may leave me ineffectual and rhetorically non pulsed. I think I would rather be honest than effective. I wonder if it is better to be pretentious than dead.

  2. I really enjoyed this post! I’m a big reader, and enjoyed reading and other academic pursuits before I ever got into video games… so I did not get a chance to benefit from an early NES, PS1 education like you did. But I have to say, what has really astounded me about games is the depth of storytelling and themes they can present, in such innovative ways. I’ve felt catharsis and real emotions while playing certain games — I’m thinking of more recent games like Journey or even Mass Effect — which to me is what reading is all about. I love anything that gets me thinking and makes me feel connected to the human race, which many video games as well as books have accomplished.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I think there was a major turning point sometime during the life of the PS1 where technological capability combined with a realization among developers that story mattered. The result is some truly cinematic games in recent years–not to mention the struggle of some developers to define the difference between game and movie–Yes, I’m looking at you Final Fantasy 13.

      I know well the feeling of catharsis that you describe. Sadly, I seem to find it less often in games of late. I am not sure if this is me getting older and pickier… or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that my imagination is less involved in gaming today because the games do so much of the work for me. Oh well… a thought for another day.

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment.

  3. I do not share your love of video games. I respect them and have tried them but they just do not do it for me and I am not sure why.

    Words are our finest attribute… maybe… or perhaps it is charity? Literature is perhaps our highest expression.

    As a teenager I read the Lord of the Rings and Moby Dick. I could tell they were wonderful and beyond me but I could not fully understand them. In Moby Dick he describes his face being cold but his body being the perfect temperature. He argues that perfect comfort is only possible when part of you is less than comfortable. I have spent 20 years thinking about that and coming more and more to believe it.

    I believe (today) that good words, good literature, are humans second highest achievement. It is when we excel and approach the divine. Charity, giving, absorbing the pain of existence may not be as high but it is good, probably better. Even as I write this all sorts of questions come to mind.

    Humans highest and best achievement is relationship, connection. It is the solution to what ails us. Video games and literature gesture toward this but they fall short. The final solution is people existing together without greed or acquisition but with a serious concern for the wellbeing of others.

    • I fully agree about literature (games included) falling short. I believe that they help us to perceive the world more clearly, but they don’t MAKE us live it better. I think that literature has much to say about relationship–both how broken and how beautiful it can be–but if the reader never moves beyond experiencing relationship as knowledge (vicariously via literature) then the literature is actually destructive in that life.

      This is the problem with locking oneself in the basement with a video game and never emerging. A game can show us much about human relationship, but it should never be a substitute. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

    • Yeah, I’d have to agree. I’m sure something could be said about PacMan as a symbol for capitalist appetite… and perhaps Pong is an expression of Cold War tension… but I’m stretching it to make those connections. Even then, I’m certainly adding my own meaning to those games, not finding anything latent in the games themselves. There is something to be said for reaching videogaming age at almost the precise moment the Video Game Depression ended (ca. 1983)–it was a different sort of game that we were playing after ’83.

    • Thanks for the comment Trent, and for the reference to Critical Distance–I haven’t been on there before, but will check it out. I’d love to build a cultural/literary studies course on video games one day–though I can just imagine what the parents would say.

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