Logo for the game "What Remains of Edith Finch"

Since their inception half a century ago, video games have become a worldwide cultural phenomena. They have ingrained themselves into popular culture extremely rapidly for such a young group of media. And since their ascension into the sphere of popular culture, video games have been the subject of immense amounts of discourse. There has long since been discussion about the subject of fantasy in video games, as it remains one of the most prolific genres in the industry. There is a distinct lack of discussion, however, of how video games are, by design, tailored to the act of storytelling, and how these storytelling elements can be utilized to further the exploration of the fantasy genre. This is unsurprising, as any academic conversation surrounding video games was nearly destitute because of the widespread negative and patronizing attitude towards video games in their early years of popularity. In recent years this has started to change, as more and more parts of academia have come to accept video games’ legitimacy and allow them space in more official discourses, as well as employing experts in the field to teach video game development in courses. But because of the long period in which video games were excluded from academia, there has been little but amateur discussion in the field of video games. Through what discussion there is, most have determined that video games have a unique physical and mental effect on their players that cannot be matched by any other form of media. This is specifically the type of immersion that makes video games both complex and extraordinarily good at storytelling. Over the course of their short existence, video games have developed into one of the best storytelling medias; specifically, they are the most suited to telling fantasy stories because of the immersive, narrative depth they offer players. What Remains of Edith Finch (2017) is one game that serves as a perfect example of this connection between player and game, and it’s one that utilizes Todorov’s definition of a fantastic story, a severely underexplored trope in video games, to accomplish this.

A game of OXO, with a row of o's lined up vertically down the middle.
OXO (1952)

So how have video games gotten so good at storytelling? Seeing as they’ve become one of the most consumed media, played by over 150 million Americans (Forsans), even starting to generate more profit than Hollywood (lpesports.com), there has to be some reason that video games have become so popular to the point where people seem to be opting for them over movies. But before exploring the why, it’s important to understand just how video games have gotten to where they are today. Starting at the very beginning, the first program that was designed to run a game on a computer was called OXO, and was basically Tic-Tac-Toe for the computer. It was created by AS Douglass in 1952 as a part of his computer science dissertation at the University of Cambridge. A few other prototype games were inspired by Douglass’s creation, such as Tennis for Two and Spacewar. Video games first started to resemble what they are today in 1972 when Ralph Baer, the “Father of Video Games,” worked with the company Magnavox to create the Odyssey: the first ever video game console. Video games had then started to be produced at rapid speed, although mostly for arcades at that point – there were still home consoles being developed, but they were not given as much attention as the publicly available arcade games. After the North American video game market crash, the Japanese video game market set its foothold in the US that would allow it to compete with the biggest names in video games – Microsoft and Sony (history.com).

The graphics of video games when they were first being created were simple and minimalistic – which makes sense, as the computers and available technology had such little processing power. But video games were lucky to have been created in an age of rapid technological development. As technology advanced, so did video games. Graphics started introducing color, complex animation, and eventually digital 3D spaces. Most video game consoles owe their development to the advancement of computer technology. The widespread availability of personal computers enabled this advancing technology to be readily available to the masses, and although consoles and PCs directly compete with each other, they owe their advancements to this competition. The evolution of visual graphics is important to the development of video games, but so is the concept of the hand-held controller. All major console companies have gone through several iterations of their signature controller before arriving at the most updated version available today. Contrary to the PC’s mouse and keyboard, the handheld controller offers its player something a bit more tangible, something they can hold in their hand that is essential to interacting with their respective console. PCs have laid the claim to diversity, however, as it’s now possible and relatively easy to use a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard. This idea of tangible interaction is useful to the later discussion about immersiveness through kinetic interactivity.

Although knowing the history of video game development is important, knowing the history of discussion surrounding them is equally relevant. Until within the last decade, there was not a lot of academic discourse about video games. This is mainly due to the attitude problem previously mentioned: video games, since their arcade days, have carried a perception about them associated with delinquency. This attitude was actually carried over from pinball. The main reason pinball machines had grown to possess such a bad reputation was because of their association with gambling, as pinball was typically coin-operated, as it didn’t previously have flippers controlled by the user, and subsequently organized crime, as pinball was popular in the days when the mob held a significant amount of power in the US.

Closeup of the playfield of a pinball machine, with several lights illuminating the surface.

Pinball machines were stereotypically present in places like brothels and dive bars, but also made appearances in arcades when they began to show up. In arcades, kids had little to no parental supervision, which helped form this attitude that pinball, and subsequently the video games that were associated with it purely by physical proximity, were corrupting youngsters. Since then, video games haven’t entirely shaken neither their reputation of being entertainment for children nor the assumption that they teach said children about drugs, sex, and violence, even when adult-oriented video games make it clear that they are telling adult stories (de Rochefort).

It’s this perception of deviance and illegitimacy that’s kept video games from the academic space for so long, and caused the divide in the two phases of video game discussion. The oldest and longest of these phases, called the condemnatory period, lasted about 30 years – from when the first video game console was released in 1972 to around 2000. This means that video games have spent more than half their lifetime being seen as a corrupting influence, and yet still managed to thrive. The second period of discussion is called the celebratory phase, whose beginning marks the point in time in which the public opinion on video games finally begins to soften (Dyer-Witherford).

Museum visitors interacting with an exhibit at MoMA, featuring Pac Man
Museum visitors interact with exhibits at MoMA

In the early 2000s, video games finally gained some traction, legitimacy, and relevance. This time period also marks the general shift from public arcades being the most common way to experience video games to the introduction of several viable home consoles offered from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Several third party publishers sprung into existence and started a rapid and widespread development of games to be played on these consoles (history.com). During the ongoing celebratory phase, video games have also entered into the discussion of art. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled for video games to possess the same amount of protection as books, movies, and other forms of entertainment (Mulkerin). This helped spur the acceptance of video games into spaces where other forms of art are collected. In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) began curating video games for an exhibit. The museum currently displays several classic and a few newer video games, such as Pac Man (1980), The Sims (2000), and Portal (2007) (Mulkerin). This was a huge step for video games, since they were finally being included in an official space, allowing them legitimacy as an art form and as a form of media.

[Ed. note: This is the first part of a series on Fantasy in Video Games, originally written for the author’s Fantasy in the Archive course. Please check back for the next update to this series!]

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