Review: A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games

A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video GamesA Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games by Dylan Holmes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was nice to take a break from fiction to read this analysis of the evolution of video game narratives through time. Chronologically, the game goes from text adventure games through point and click adventure games to JRPGs and then to the blending of narrative with FPS engines before ending with Heavy Rain. The book is relatively short for its subject matter and decades of coverage (200-something pages on my Nook in epub format including the glossary) so the author has to cut out a lot. He’s honest and upfront about this which, for me, took the sting out of “why did he mention this one and not that one?”.

I believe the best compliment I can give this book is that the handful of chapters about games I’d played (Monkey Island, Final Fantasy 7, Dear Esther) brought me new insights. The author’s throughline was about how the ludic and gamic systems slowly merged as video games evolved. In other words, to what degree were developers using the medium to create something wholly unique. In the earlier games sometimes the story is sacrificed for the game or the game is sacrificed for the story. But as the decades passed and we gained a game grammar and vocabulary (basically, even though it’s not a perfect analogy – tropes), the developers were able to work within and subvert or comment on those expectations. No surprise to anyone who’s really into gaming and around 30 or older, one of the best examples in this book are Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2. But there is also Dear Esther, which completely subverts the FPS.

How much you like this book is going to depend on a few things. The book is written academically with words like ludic and tons of footnotes (easy to follow in PDF (as I read at work) and annoying in epub (as I read on the plane)). There have been more blog-like essays covering similar topics that you can find out there, so that’s one caveat. It’s not a dry text, not by any means. And the author inserts his feelings and perceptions about the games throughout. But it’s just a bit more formal than you might expect. Second, are you interested in the history of video games narratives? Third, have you been playing games since the 80s? Although I hadn’t played a lot of games on this list, I’d played enough (and absorbed others through osmosis if they were series my brother Dan liked to play) to have a connection to what he was talking about.

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