Playing with the Classics

After much planning and research, I’ve finally made a tentative start on the writing for my PhD piece. I’ve read and written essays on J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello & Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels paying particular attention to the role of women writers. (My central character is a female writer.) I may refine and post them here eventually, but for now they’re rather heavy on the footnotes, so instead, I thought I’d discuss how my interactive novel’s opening’s shaping up.One thing that I noticed in both Elizabeth Costello and Less Than Angels is how incredibly intertextual they are. Many characters, even non-writers, frequently reference books and authors they enjoy and this wasn’t really something I’d considered for my own piece, but as an exploration of the reader-writer relationship, is obviously essential. Also, as this is a dual game/novel piece, I thought games should also be part of the intertextual make up.

I knew the opening section was going to be a sample of the protagonist’s writing that the reader can rate (without context, or the realisation of what they’re ranking at first) and that the system would randomly select one of ten openings to give replay value and also to see how far that opening might affect perceptions of later parts according to its content. I’d tossed around a few ideas such as a mixture of intentionally awful, cliched writing to push towards bad ratings and standard pieces to hopefully achieve ratings, or representing a different genre with each piece to see how that influenced readers interpretations of what followed (if at all). But after reading Pym and Coetzee, I landed on the idea of mash-ups – pastiches of classic literature and classic videogames, put together in a way that (hopefully) says something about both.

I began by looking into novels that have memorable styles or particularly recognisable openings and narrowed this down to a list of ten. I then came up with ten iconic videogames, trying to cover a range of styles and eras. Afterwards, I looked for elements or characters in the stories of each that would pair up well and rewrote each opening to fit incorporate the game. I ended up with the following:

Anna Karenina/Mario Brothers – I thought this was an interesting mix, because it always seems in the Mario games (particularly the later ones) that there’s a subtext of a dysfunctional relationship between Luigi and Mario, a simmering rivalry and resentment. Although the novel as a whole doesn’t necessarily continue this theme, the opening is definitely centred around familial and class tensions, which I attempted to bring out in the piece.

Similar studies of class and status arose in the mash-ups of Middlemarch/Streetfighter and Pride & Prejudice/Tomb Raider. In both instances, I chose to explore the representation of women. The Streetfighter passage is Chun Li’s life story in microcosm, but in aligning her with the character of Dorothea Brooke also references the fact that she was subject to male expectations, particularly (as in the novel’s opening passage) with regards to her appearance. There was a great deal of disagreement regarding Chun Li’s musculature and she was increasingly slimmed and ‘feminised’ in later iterations of the game. Similarly, Lara Croft seemed a good videogame representation of Elizabeth Bennet, as a protagonist who refused to conform to the gentility of her upbringing. I also felt the relationship between Elizabeth/Lara and her father could be used for dark comic effect: in Pride & Prejudice, their relationship is one of affectionate verbal sparring, here Lara partakes in a similar argument, unaware that her wish for “an arrangement whereby she could have access to his money without having to endure his endless wittering” is about to be fulfilled. (In many of the games, it is through the death of her father that Lara is able to fund her expeditions.)

In A Tale of Two Cities/Call of Duty and The Good Soldier/Doom I covered problematic representations of masculinity and war in games. The marine of the Doom mash-up demonstrates (albeit humorously) the mentally debilitating effects of war, through his paranoia and belief that his chaingun is a colleague. The Call of Duty piece references the duality of war, the differing perspectives that games rarely ask us to consider, but literature almost always does. It also refers to the duality of online gaming as a tool for both commendable global socialisation and teamwork,  and widespread alienating abuse.

Invisible Man/Grand Theft Auto demonstrates the problematic attitude towards women displayed in the series, particularly the anti-feminist outcry towards request for equal representation in Grand Theft Auto 5, and the related response from the developers that this was an essentially male story that could not have been told with female characters.

The final four are more difficult to categorise, or express my reasoning, but I’ll try. Metamorphosis/Sonic the Hedgehog arose because the notion of a humanoid blue hedgehog has always struck me as odd, and has never particularly been explained by Nintendo. The fact that before Sonic had his official name he was codenamed ‘Maurice Needlemouse’ also made me think it would be interesting to consider him as a human who found himself in the body of a strange blue hedgehog. Space Invaders has only the barest implied story, so I wanted to put it with something very story-heavy and unexpected, which is why I chose The Bell Jar to blend it with. I also explored the notion of the blurring between the protagonist and the player by having her discuss typical player strategies as military strategies employed against the invaders. There’s also reference to the practise of ‘backseat gaming’ in order to cover gaming in all its forms. Confederacy of Dunces/Centipede was another case of instinctively putting two completely disparate elements together, partly because I’m intrigued by the inherent absurdity of many videogame stories. The idea of what is presented in the game as a mindless, relentless enemy giving deep thought on and judgements of the player’s prowess just struck me as amusing. Finally, for Final Fantasy I wanted something with a similar coming of age, genre-bending feel, and while it’s certainly different, I just felt that The Crow Road was a good match.

With the possible exceptions of Dunces/Centipede and Metamorphosis/Sonic I felt that these openings covered all the main themes of my planned novel – familial discord, coming of age, the role of women and the reader/protagonist relationship. How far the opening that the reader is presented with affects their appreciation of the story as a whole is all part of the fun! Oh, and if you want to actually see any of the pieces themselves, I’m afraid you have a rather long wait… come back to me in three years!


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