Review by Curtis Cole
Over the past couple of weeks, I read Astrid Ensslin’s book Literary Gaming. Concise, theoretically dense, and neophyte are all words to describe her project; but, more to the point, they are words which in this case do more than describe, they outline the future of the Humanities.
Ensslin’s book is concerned with that intersection of the humanities called the Digital Humanities. Specifically, her concern is at what point do video games and literature collide? We have video games (Final Fantasy, Call of Duty, Farmville) and we have literature (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, To the Lighthouse), and then we have those curious artifacts which combine the two—videogames which espouse literary qualities. So, Ensslin’s mission is clear: build upon the studies previously conducted in this growing field and try to synthesize a way forward, try to create a framework for critiquing these games and delineating where one ends and another begins.
Obviously, this is an ambitious undertaking. But it is an undertaking that she accomplishes fairly well. Ensslin claims that we have entered a so-called “second wave” of literary gaming; no longer do we have vague and generalized theories about what constitutes literary-oriented gaming, but rather, we have firmly delineated ideas which attempt to form totalities and concrete understandings.
Ensslin’s own contribution to this second wave is the idea of a “functional ludostylistic” toolkit (“ludo” essentially means “gameplay mechanics”, though that is a bit vulgar). This is an expanded idea of a previous concept called “functional ludo-narrativism”, an idea which was limited, in Ensslin’s view, because it only encompassed narratological ideas. Ensslin’s contention, then, is to expand it into a toolset. To do this, she adds several new components. These components include semiotics (“ludosemiotics”), the actual dynamics of the game’s construction (“Ludology”), and the platform, hardware, and type of interaction between player and machine (“Mediality”); and, of course, the narrative itself (“Ludonarratology”). Such a toolset, she argues, can be used in practical application to a wide range of literary gaming products, a concept which she believes can take shape across a wide range of expressions.
Demonstrations of this toolset compose the second half of the book; the first half constituting a general historical introduction plus a theoretical crash-course in functional ludostylistics. Ensslin deconstructs such literary games such as Blue Lacuna, The Path, Evidence of Everything Exploding, and many others (though, some games are only touched upon). Each game is divided into chapters which best describe its characteristics. To Ensslin, there is many varieties of literary games; some games, for example, focus primarily on the literary, while others subsume the literary underneath the game itself. Because each focal point—the literary and the gaming—hold each other in a specific articulation and contradiction, literary games can appear on a wide spectrum. Hence, there needs to be a wide categorization for such games and an understanding of a commodity’s qualities.
Although some critics have quipped that Ensslin selects literary games which are not too well known, this is only a problem to the average gamer, the layman who is more familiar with Halo than Silent Conversation. Ensslin makes pains to select texts which embody literary gaming and those texts will, by necessity, be lesser known products due to their existing on the periphery of the gaming scene. That being said, I feel that Ensslin still chooses texts which, given their specific genre, are fairly well-known in those communities; Blue Lacuna, for instance, has won numerous awards and so it well understand to a certain niche of people. It is merely that this niche is not as wide as Doom’s own niche.
My own opinion of Ensslin’s book is very high. To me, this sort of research is precisely the kind of engagement which the Digital Humanities needs to pay more attention toward. While I do not want to sound hyperbolic or give the wrong impression, that I somehow value the digital humanities over the traditional humanities, the outlook for the future is only going to gravitate more and more to the digital realm (I feel this should be so blatantly obvious that I quite frankly feel foolish for even having to say it; like I am an 80s nerd shouting at the top of my lungs that this “World Wide Web” is going to be HUGE someday!); but, literature, the classic past, is only going to be continued to be used, continued to be reified as part of this digital migration. Whether it is Shakespeare in some sci-fi 3D immersion game or Frankenstein in the latest medieval-inspired horror game, we will see a continued engagement between the modern and antique.
But, I feel that it should be said that Ensslin’s book is merely the first salvo in the burgeoning field of literary game studies. Her proposal of a functional ludostylistics is simply a basic outline. It will be up to future researchers and theorists to take her findings, critical appraise them, and apply and expand them to new situations. Even so, this does not diminish Ensslin’s book; in fact, in my eyes, it heightens it due to its humility (far too many academic texts these days try and overreach). Whatever the case, if you have an interest in the digital humanities, especially game studies, then this book is a mandatory read.
206 pages. Published by M.I.T U.P. $12.38 (Hardcover), $21.96 (Kindle). 2014.