Learning Narrative Structure from Video Games

My first brief hit of gaming was Super Mario Brothers in 1993, at my Granny Griffin’s neighbor’s home in the lush green world of Tipperary. I was five and in my hand was a small gray box with a cable, like an umbilical cord that connected me to a television. I made the small red and blue dots on the screen move. I was bad at it. I was vaguely aware that there was another world in there and that I traveled through it somehow with the red and black buttons under my tiny thumbs. I wanted more.

Adam down the road had a Super Nintendo. Steph, my best friend, she got one for her Holy Communion. I was devout, kneeling before televisions in my friends’ houses, leading digital men over holes in the ground. Collecting mushrooms, collecting stars—just think about that for a second. Collecting actual stars. Reading had already taken me wild by the heart but this—this was something different.

That Christmas, a Super Nintendo arrived and from that point onward, pixelated lands of blue skies and malevolent dragons were my refuge. I grew older. I got better. My quests changed. I took up a sword and a green hat and was never sure if the sprite in The Legend of Zelda was a girl or a boy—either way, Link was me. I was unstoppable, full of courage.

N64, 1997. I swear, seared into me is the moment, my dad by my side on the living room floor, when I pushed the control stick forward and Mario just walked into the world. Not just left and right. Around. The depth of it almost took the air out of my lungs. There, in my pajamas with shaking hands beside that same plastic Christmas tree that had presided over my first ship into other worlds: that was dumbstruck. That was me, gone.

A poster depicting a battle scene from the climax of The Ocarina of Time hung above my bed instead of whatever band I should have been listening to at the time like a normal teenager. It was all I thought about. But I was never sure how to talk about it. Much like books, my big mad love for these games got caught in my throat. It never managed to sound as cool as it did in my head.

A secondhand PlayStation found its way to me; Final Fantasy VII, then VIII. Dystopia, utopia, mercenary, a new vocabulary fired through my synapses. Complex relationships, antiheroes, ethical quandaries, technicolor beasts. I read through the dialogue of these vast realms and was hit as hard as I was the first time I opened The Magician’s Nephew, The Hobbit. Final Fantasy was as good in my mind as Gormenghast: it gave me music, and art—and, most importantly, agency.

I worked at a local branch of a video game shop for two years during college, during which my love was nearly squashed out of me by the incredulity of the lads I worked with. You’re not really into games. You’re appalling at Guitar Hero. You don’t even play Halo. You don’t even play Call of Duty. This kind of misogyny has always been the ambient buzz in the background of my life. But I wasn’t ever in it to play with the boys. I was in it for myself, for the stories. I quit the shop quietly, eventually. I kept playing, and playing. Often, just re-running through old favorites: the vast oceans of The Wind Waker, the silent endlessness of Shadow of the Colossus, the undeniable sugar rush of Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros., the sheer satisfaction of Portal. It’s almost meditative, how closely I know these games. Like any art, if you practice escape for long enough you get really, really good at it. There’s such reward in knowing these other worlds completely. Second lives and second homes. Confidence with a sword. Sure of the dangers that lurk in the shadows, sure that you can manage them. Above all, courage.

Last year, while editing and rewriting Spare and Found Parts and nurturing the seed of my second novel, I took up EarthBound, a legendary game from the ’90s that would have been on the Super Nintendo, but never made it to Europe on its first release, too weird for these shores. Every night I sat with my husband and our big cat on the sofa and ventured through the strangeness of it, the glorious, melodic chiptunes completely transporting me, the dialogue so poignant I welled up more than once. The fourth wall taken apart by long, scrolling monologues that spoke outside the narrative of the game and directly to the player about the nature of growing up, leaving home, returning after adventure. I was so glad that even now, playing games for the vast majority of my life, there were still reservoirs untapped: that a game could still roar inspiration through me. That games weren’t just meditative nostalgia in my adulthood; they could still shift things for me creatively. They could still make me want to write.

I use the second person quite frequently in Spare and Found Parts to echo how it felt playing video games and being spoken to by characters within the worlds on screen. You name yourself, you are the hero. They are stories about you. I think there’s something in that, the direct contact with the person experiencing the story—whether reader or player. Taking them by the hands and pulling them in. Maybe I’m not quite writing a choose-your-own-adventure, but I’d love to emulate that feeling of becoming the adventurer completely, somehow. I’m always trying to get back to that complete transportation, those first dots on the screen: how the plastic of the controller became a sword, a staff, a hammer in my hands. Sometimes the controller can feel as magic as a pen—and that’s how I know I’m in the right job. That work feels just the same as play.

Originally published in October 2016 as part of our Related Subjects series.

Spare-Found-PartsSarah Maria Griffin lives in Dublin, Ireland, in a small red brick house by the sea, with her husband and cat. She writes about monsters, growing up, and everything those two things have in common. Spare and Found Parts is her first novel.


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