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April 24, 2005

Discussion: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

I've always loved Steinbeck; well, not always, it wasn't there a priori in me or anything, but I've loved him since I encountered East of Eden at the start of my junior year in high school¹. I read a couple of others at that time: Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley. Before long I had moved on to another passion in reading, as I recall, but Of Mice and Men was a great book and one of the more memorable forays into literature of my young adulthood. In fact, it may have been the touchstone of my current literary life -- the reason behind some of my later literary marathon reading sessions that occasionally gripped me through college². I don't have time for that kind of reading anymore, but I loved it while I could get it. So many books, so little time.

That's a rather long-winded introduction to talk about how, years later, I've returned to Steinbeck to listen to The Grapes of Wrath during my commute. For those of you who haven't read it, I want to talk a little bit about its form, because it's germane to the discussion at hand.

Steinbeck alternates between long chapters about an Oklahoma family moving west to California to work as migrant farmers and shorter, tighter chapters about different aspects about what was happening in the United States at that time -- the economic pressures, the congolomeration of small farms into what would eventually become agribusiness, the life of the road, the economics of migrant farming (and the landholders and guilds which would set the price for an hour of work), what cotton does to earth. Steinbeck has it both ways, focusing on the small, personal story of one family and still capturing, through a multitude of voices, the large story of a huge change in the American economy, away from small farms to the more efficient and less humane large ones. It makes for compelling reading -- while you are caught up and driven forward by the perseverance of the poor Joad family, you nonetheless understand that for a country of this size, efficiency in our agricultural practices is enormously important. You rail against the heartlessness of capitalism's forces, and the market, while knowing at the same time what those changes in our economy permitted. It's an extraordinary novel. You feel sympathy for those who were swept up in it, and at the same time, rationally understand what progress demands. You hope that we'll never see times like those again, while secretly fearing that we are seeing similar forces today, with the movement of jobs oversees, and wondering what brave new worlds our new efficiencies will bring us, if any, and wondering if the extraordinary compensations top executives receive actually squanders a great deal of that efficiency. And then you wonder if maybe I've digressed a little too much into the political here, so let's move on.

That said, there could have been a lot more humanity in what happened in this move to more efficient use of our resources. The conditions that migrant workers faced were inhumane in the extreme. Capitalism has a very ugly side, and Steinbeck unmasked it mercilessly. He was faced with criticisms that he was a Communist sympathizer -- but he did a great service in shining a light at the dark corners that our economic restructuring was creating, hiding in the most sun-bleached geographical areas of our country.

Quite a book.

In the couple of weeks since I finished it, I've been nagged by the suspicion that this form appears in games, and it finally occurred to me where I've glimpsed it. It's there in some of the console RPGs, in particular; Final Fantasy IX has almost exactly this sort of form. You have an implacable, cold, unfeeling foe in Fate, hidden behind mortal actors, and you see glimpses of the machinations of those mortal actors throughout the story. You see bits and pieces of what the political upheaval does to the ordinary folk. You even have persecution of one of the characters, the little black mage, Vivi.

There are definitely differences, and these come from what we want from games, apparently, and what we get from literature³. The biggest and most important of these is that Zidane and his company can face the forces head-on: they actually encounter and defeat Fate. It's as if Tom Joad could walk out into the Platonic Form-World and smack Capitalism over the head with a Sledgehammer. While we'd love to ease the Joads' pain, we know that life simply doesn't work that way -- in the case of the Okies, many would die of simple starvation or malnutrition at a time when we were producing more food than we actually even needed.

But of course, we turn to games now to feel empowered, to overcome inexorable forces. But do we have to? Can we turn to games instead to better know ourselves, to better understand the human condition, even if that knowledge is painful? I read The Grapes of Wrath because I knew that I would come out of it knowing a little more, being a person capable of greater understanding, of perhaps touching a little bit of truth.

But the really crazy thing of it is, I actually really liked Final Fantasy IX. I was very moved by the ending, and I loved the way it turned in on itself at the very end. I sat through those 15 or 20 minutes of cutscenes and was moved.

But then, at that point, the game was already over. All the interacting was done. I may have pressed a few buttons to move dialog along, but there was no gaming. I was watching the story, and the story had very little to do with all the actual play -- the selection of Phoenix Downs and special Sword Attacks and whatever that made up each of a thousand little battles. In fact, any of the stuff that really moved me in the game had little to do with the game at all. It was all just the story, the skippable bits. The loops didn't contain the emotion at all; it was all safely non-interactive.

I suspect that's because we know how to do that. We know how to make non-interactive content that grabs us emotionally, we've been doing it for thousands of years, long before we even wrote it all down. What's keeping me up nights4 is whether we can get that emotional grab from the interactive bits. Well, not really whether -- I believe that we can -- but how. Does it lie in interactive storytelling? In the interesting work they're doing down at Cecropia? How can we build it?

And if we build it, will they come?

¹It would probably not make Mr. Rainnie happy to learn that I had merely read enough of the book to be able to make him believe that I had read the damn thing over the course of my summer break, along with some other novel which I've since forgotten. That said, it would probably then please him that having invested enough time to read 200 or so pages in a marathon session the two days before I was to discuss it with him, I then went on to finish the book at just as feverish a pace. Man, I loved that book. I may have to read it again, now that I think about it.
²After seeing the Anthony Quinn telemovie of The Old Man and the Sea, I went down to Van Pelt and checked out the book, returned to my dorm room, and read it cover to cover. It was only 150 pages or so, but I started at 11:30pm or so on a Sunday night (and I had a 9:00 class, I think), and read it through. I read Portnoy's Complaint a month or so later, in a single sitting. I was voracious. I hit the limit on the number of books an undergraduate was permitted to have out from the library at one time, which was around 50. Thankfully, they upped it for me.
³Though I hope you've read between my lines enough by now to realize that I'm hoping that games (or interactive entertainment, if you prefer that rubrick) can aspire a little higher, in time, hopefully in time for me to see and enjoy it.
4...aside from a bad caffeine habit...

Posted by Brett Douville at April 24, 2005 10:09 PM


At least being moved by the non-interactive parts of our games disproves (as Cliff B. pointed out in his lecture at the GDC) the "story-to-games is as story-to-porn" argument. At least, I don't think there's any porn out there that's as moving as *Silent Hill 2*, but maybe I haven't seen enough porn...

I expect being moved interactively will happen within our lifetimes...

Posted by: Jamie Fristrom at April 25, 2005 03:10 PM

I sure hope so. I'm scratching my head about how. I need to order Crawford's book, see if there's anything there. I'd also really like to play The Act, see what they're up to.

That said, you clearly have an assignment for next time...

Posted by: Brett Douville at April 25, 2005 11:16 PM

Once upon a time, I lived in Boca Raton, Florida, and bartended in Lauderdale. A regular group of bar employees and I met up nearly every night at a little pub-type bar that was open until 5 a.m., with a cute little coin-op trivia machine that perched on the side of the bar.

We played Power Trivia -- the answers were displayed before the question, and the object was to correctly answer the question before the entire question was displayed. We awarded ourselves points for least number of words on the board before the answer, vile penalty drinks for having to read the entire question, etc.

As a group, we must have dumped at least a thousand a week into the machine, in spite of the fact that all the comic book-related questions were wrong.

I could see that particular group doing the same thing with The Act.

The best application for both the interactive element and refined response would be in education. Assuming that it could be possible to get past educators' fears of technology to the idea that education needs to radically evolve, fairly rapidly, to keep up with expanding classrooms and declining revenues and test scores.

Posted by: Anne at April 27, 2005 09:26 PM

This book is atrocious and I would never recommend it to ANYONE!!!!!!!!!! When I read it, I felt depressed and it was worst experience of my entire life. This book should have never been written and it iflicts pain on those who read it.

p.s. if you bought it, ask for your money back

Posted by: Susie Q. at October 28, 2006 11:30 AM

Wow, Susie Q, that's quite a strong reaction -- I only hope that you have no worse experience in your life than reading the Grapes of Wrath.

That said, there's a reason why it was called the Great Depression, though that was an economic description and not explicitly an emotional one.

But I have to disagree with you on whether it should ever have been written. It reached a large readership, and prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to pursue Congressional hearings on the plight of the displaced farmers, which led to some changes in labor laws.

And the book has had its echoes -- among them, T. Coraghessen Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, published in the mid-nineties or so and describing similarly the plight of illegal aliens (who are sometimes employed in agriculture in much the same way as in The Grapes of Wrath).

So, it was an influential book, both in terms of public policy and literary heritage -- truly worthy of the "classic" moniker. I think that you'll find that most classics deal with the darker or more chaotic sides of human nature, because confronting those makes both for more memorable reading, and hopefully for personal growth.

In any case, I hope you'll keep reading Steinbeck. His Of Mice and Men and East of Eden are also terrific. But if you'd like something a little lighter, you might try his Travels with Charley.

Posted by: Brett Douville at October 29, 2006 07:16 AM