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November 30, 2005

And the Winner for this year's Nobel Prize in the Interactive Experience Is...

The Double Blindness The Cave

If you've been paying attention to what I've been reading over the last several months, you might have noticed José Saramago's name come up a few times, and if you have not been paying attention, I feel certain that at some point, you will come to your senses. In any case, I first read All the Names towards the beginning of the year and have been steadily making my way through the rest of his œuvre¹.

It's amazing how well set apart Nobel literature often is. When I began reading All the Names I was unaware of Saramago's status as a Nobel laureate, but while reading it I knew immediately how important it was, how strikingly original it was, how it spoke to the human condition. I knew within the first twenty or thirty pages that I would be systematically tracking down everything he had written, and would consider learning Portugese if any of it turned out to be unavailable in English. It's that powerful to me; his novels are written in a style which lulls me into the rhythms of his particular story, jocularly told by an avuncular omniscient narrator, and just when I'm least on my guard, he'll sneak in some bit of wisdom, such as this piercing line from Blindness, delivered just after the narrator has led you to a room where two people are making love:

Even if this instant of supreme pleasure should last you a lifetime, you will never become united as one.

That sentence snuck up on me, as I played the voyeur, following a character who was herself a voyeur, and delivered a statement of a fundamental loneliness inherent in the human condition in a way that I had never experienced before. Even at our most vulnerable, if our whole lives are spent extending a moment of connection, we will never fully break out and connect the darknesses inside our separate skins.

There are a number of other authors on the list who have that power. I spent a lot of time reading Solzhenitsyn, for example, back in the last couple of years of high school. Camus exerts that kind of influence over me, or at least he did, back when I was still capable of reading him in French. Steinbeck, Coetzee, and Marquez are all compelling to me. And there are a number of authors on that list who are on my reading list² that I will get to one of these days, such as Halldór Laxness, Naguib Mahfouz, and Kenzaburo Oe.

I won't claim that everything on the list has aged well. I don't think Pearl S. Buck has, particularly, and though I enjoy Kipling, he doesn't pull me in like the winners I mention above³. Tastes change.

In reading these novels and considering the impact they have on me, the way that they change my point of view on the human condition, I wonder if there will come a time in our art form's growth where we will actually be able to have an honest debate about which of the games of the previous year "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," in the words of Nobel's will, which established the funding for the Prize in 1895.

Setting aside the likelihood of such a Prize ever being conferred4, achieving any significant benefit to mankind via a game is quite a lofty goal, especially when you consider that the means of measurement for our closest kin amongst the Nobel categories (i.e. the novel) has typically been of increased understanding of the human condition.

Like Ron Gilbert did in a recent post, I often wonder what kind of game it will take to make me stop and think about life in the way that Saramago does. Something that gets in my head for a few days, and won't let go; something that makes me look at something in a new light.

I entirely think games will be able to do this. And, in fact, I think some designers actually have a message that they want to send, or an idea they want you to think about. Will Wright, for example, talked frequently about the motivation behind The Sims: the fact that of all the resources that we might have at our disposal, the one we need to be most conscious of is often time.

It's really cool to consider a game making you think about that, much like Blindness or All the Names makes me think about loneliness, or The Double causes me to reconsider what comprises our identity, what boundary really defines us given our social structures (among other things).

The thing is, though, I would not have taken that away from The Sims were I not made aware of Wright's idea by being a conscentious reader of various sites and magazines devoted to videogames. In other words, I know that's what Wright was getting at only because he mentioned it in an interview somewhere. Whereas just reading these books causes me to stop and think; indeed, they often cause me to full stop and find a piece of paper to jot down the page number so I can later return and copy out a quote wholesale, such as the one above chosen for brevity.

I suppose it's entirely possible that I am simply not literate enough when it comes to games; I'm willing to entertain the possibility. After all, Wright describes something akin to a vision, and I can see that as something that one could take away from the product. But there's never a point where I'm going to be looking at the game saying, "Hey, I just realized that the one resource I can't create more of for my Sim is time," and I am equally unlikely to apply that moment of meaning to my own life. That said, this is true of any high school student who has ever browsed some Cliff's Notes to get the underlying ideas behind Hemingway, or Faulkner, or any of a number of literary authors we're exposed to early on. At that point, you simply haven't the reading experience to draw that out of the books you read.

But really, to get a lot out of a Nobel laureate requires more than book knowledge, in many cases. It relates a lot to experience; I would not be drawing what I have from Saramago's work this year if not for the life experiences I have been having away from the books. I feel like I have sufficient wisdom to pull a message from a videogame, and probably enough gaming experience to cover the literacy argument as well. I'm left thinking that we simply haven't found our ways to make lasting and meaningful statements, statements which "[confer] the greatest benefit on mankind."

We will, though. We'll have to. Otherwise, we're likely to collapse under our own weight. Having something definite to say will be the strongest defense we can make against those who would lock us away or treat us forever as kid stuff.

Join me on Saturday or so when I'll chat a bit about prostitution as I've seen it represented in a few different ways in different media.

¹Admittedly, this is just an opportunity to throw in the word œuvre. Well, not entirely. It's also an opportunity to use a ligature. I tried to find a natural way to work in Æsop as well, but it was beyond my abilities -- it just has to reside here in the footnote, I guess. (back)
²Lamentably, my reading list is already of a length which might take me the rest of my lifetime to read. On the other hand, I will never lack for anything to read. (back)
³I admit, I was thinking of throwing in the name of Selma Lagerlöf to see if anyone was paying attention. There are a fair number of early winners I've never even heard of; Lagerlöf is definitely one of them. (back)
4It should be noted that the Nobel Prize categories are not fixed, though they may seem to be. The Prize for Economics was endowed in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at November 30, 2005 12:20 AM


hi, Brett! Saramago launched another book (i've read yet, but sure a must have) about Death making a strike in some country at a seaside with some political problems(Portugal anyone?). there is a quote that i've must to share with you (ambience: Death is sitting in a man's room watching him, because he doesn't receive a notification of his dead): «The man covered until is neck, cofed twice and fell asleep. Sit at her's corner, Death looked. Some time later, the dog rised from the carpet and jumped to the sofa. For the first time Death knew what was to have a dog in her lap.» (sorry the translation, but i think the idea is this ;-)).
by the way. the nes classic's The Legend of Zelda, made me feel very lonely, when i appeared in Hylure's forest and have to walk in that umongous maps. is impressive how loneliness struked me in that game. i felt the dispear of Link, searching for Zelda, and only monsters and loniless face him.
hug, rui

Posted by: Rui Guerreiro at December 6, 2005 06:13 AM

I'm so glad to hear he has another novel out -- I managed to snag The Double the first week or so it was out here in English. They are translating them much faster now; is this "Las intermitencias de la muerte" that you describe? There's also "Seeing", which is going to be published here next April. No date on "Las intermitencias" though, and they don't sound like the same novel.

It's funny, I never think of Link as lonely, not like I think of the protagonist of Shadow of the Colossus, which I recently finished. I think it's because of how he's drawn -- bright colors, shining sword. I do tend to think of him as innocent, though.

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 7, 2005 09:58 AM

It's only to wish you: um Feliz Natal e um Bom Ano Novo. (sorry to use your comments, but it's the only way i found to send you x-mas greetings)


Posted by: Rui at December 20, 2005 06:55 PM

Many thanks, Rui, and to you as well!

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 20, 2005 08:52 PM