Book Review: “Waverly Hall: Relois” by Brian Melton

This is a solicited review, and a free copy of the book was sent to me. In no way does this affect my opinions expressed here.

Cover is cool, but doesn't accurately reflect the story's tone.

Title: Waverly Hall: Relois
Series: First in a projected series.
Author: Brian Melton
Pages: 255
Published: 2010, by Lantern Hollow Press
Spoiler-free Synopsis: While staying at her mysterious Uncle Warren’s mansion, teenaged Meg O’Reilly stumbles across a portal to a dystopian world ravaged by plague and tyranny and must fight for the world’s freedom if she ever wants to return home.
Reason for Reading: Solicited review. Also the premise is interesting.
Story Re-readability: Story-wise, I would say low, because it doesn’t leave much of an impact. There were some nice characters, but none that were engaging enough to return to. The plot is okay, but carries few surprises. And the pacing was awkward, alternating between too slow and too fast. Still, if you really enjoy the book, the author has hidden numerous allusions to literature, philosophy, movies, and even video games all throughout it, and he encourages readers to try to find them all, as an extra game. I won’t be doing so, but it was fun to note some of these allusions as I read.
Author Re-readability: I’d be willing to give Melton’s next book a try when it comes out. His writing style is bland, but good-natured and with lots of room to grow. His ideas are more interesting, at least, even if their execution needs a lot of work to be worthy of them. Basically, I think he’s got some good stories to tell, but I hope to see him improve at their telling.
Recommendation: I think this is a decent book for teenagers and middle-schoolers, as they are more likely to relate to the fourteen year-old heroine and less likely to be picky about issues with style, pacing, and originality. More sophisticated readers may get a little bored or frustrated with it in parts, but it’s not without some charm. I wouldn’t put this on any must-read list, but it did provide its fair share of entertaining and interesting moments.

Key Thoughts

The plot is actually more complex than I had expected, but I’m undecided on whether that works for or against the book. Waverly Hall: Relois is loosely broken into three parts: Meg’s arrival and early weeks living at the titular mansion, her time living with a family in Relois’ dystopic city of Paucée, and her subsequent fight against the bad guys. The final part is probably the most entertaining, but also the weakest from a narrative standpoint. More neat things happen as the story approaches its finale, but they make less and less sense. The underlying story is good and could have provided a really fascinating book, but the end result is decidedly mediocre.

So let’s backtrack and start with the good stuff. Meg is a likable and fairly believable fourteen year-old girl. She’s a little bit disaffected and unhappy with her parents (who don’t understand her) and her little brothers (who are brats), but isn’t as angry and cynical as she makes out to be. Though she’s happy to plug in her iPod’s earphones and ignore the rest of the world, she’s also a reader and is familiar with a lot of classic literature, from Sherlock Holmes to The Lord of the Rings. When confronted by weird stuff, she asks reasonable questions. When confronted by human suffering, she is deeply affected. In fact, looking over her character traits, she has some clear similarities with Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time; the comparison only serves to remind us of that classic’s superiority, however. But more on that later.

The side characters are also likable and mostly well-drawn. The homey Mrs. Davidson is a warm and wise mother-figure to Meg who also engages in the book’s most explicit discussions about Christianity, science, and philosophy. The family Meg meets in Relois is interesting because it manages to be a loving and functioning unit even though its individual members have been so abused and broken by the dictatorial system. Uncle Warren is amusingly weird in much the way that Merlin is in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King…only perhaps a bit too weird, without enough reason behind his madness being revealed. He felt more like a plot device than an actual character. Though I expect him to get more development in future volumes, he needed more in this one. Another key character, named Selcwis (no prize for guessing who that’s an anagram of), is also a case of lost potential, being a man of much wisdom, humor, and some mystery, who really deserved much more development.

However, I don’t like how Meg’s becoming soldier gets romanticized it as if this is some fun kids’ story. She essentially becomes a child-soldier, yet suffers little psychological trauma. Oh she is scared often enough, sure. She’s often terrified, and confused, and desperate for adult help. But then she gets a deus ex machine in the form of a sentient futuristic fighter jet and starts cheerfully slaughtering enemy soldiers by the dozen. These scenes are admittedly more fun than much of the rest of the story because they are faster paced and contain actual victories for the good guys (and because the jet fighter’s personality, named Ai, is amusing), but they also feel contrived to be like a video game in book form. The comparison is not a positive one. Now, The Chronicles of Narnia also had teenagers killing monsters and bad guys in battle. So what’s the difference? Those were fairy stories told in broad strokes, and inhabiting a world that was clearly allegorical. But Relois is a gritty sci-fi dystopia, and the sudden shift in tone to cheerful child-soldiering is too much a contrast. It’s jarring, a bit disturbing (in a way Melton doesn’t seem to intend), and just doesn’t fit. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe teenagers weened on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games won’t see a disconnect.

That’s one of the book’s major problems: its uncertain tone. Is it a dark, dystopic sci-fi story, or a Narnia-style young adult fantasy adventure? It’s got elements of both, but they never fuse comfortably. The cover hints at a gritty, serious tale, but most of the beginning and end is relatively light-hearted. And then the dystopia of Relois and Paucée is too grim and depressing for the video-game style shenanigans that ensue when Meg escapes in a sentient jet fighter whose personality is unsatisfyingly trite. Maybe Melton was trying to keep the story from being too dark by turning that most formidable vehicle of war into comic relief, but it’s too jarring. Or take the creature Reep, a cute squirrel-rabbit-dog thing that appears randomly at the beginning and attaches itself to Meg, following her in all her adventures yet functioning mostly as a fluffy thing for her to hug when she’s scared or tired. He doesn’t serve much of a plot purpose, and his existence—especially since it is entirely unexplained—feels superfluous.

This disparity is also reflected in the art. I was excited when I first realized that the book is illustrated. Unfortunately, the pencil sketches are of a quality comparative to your average deviantArt or Elfwood teenager’s anime fan art. While I have no intention of hurting the young artist’s feelings, this book really needed more sophisticated and evocative illustrations, or none at all. I wish the artist all the best in her future drawings, and I’m sure she will greatly improve in the coming years. Another artist contributed two pictures which are a little bit better, but also far less than what the book needed. All the pictures look drawn by a teenager doodling in the margins of their notes, and this childish quality contrasts too much with some of the more serious goings-on.

The ending was mostly acceptable, but failed to explain a few things it should have. It’s understandable that Melton wants to leave lots of the lesser mysteries unanswered so they can be explored in future volumes. It gives us something to look forward to. But I think he really should have revealed more about Waverly Hall by the end. Too many bizarre things happened in the mansion near the beginning that were glossed over by the characters, but that any sane person would have angrily demanded answers to. Some explanations need to be offered in this book regarding the creature It, the potentially-living carpet, the origin or identity of Reep, and the weirdness of Uncle Warren. Not the complete explanations, but at least something that is plausible and interesting. I expect them all to be elaborated on later in the series, you can’t just have some majorly random but quite important elements like these pass without some illumination. Take Uncle Warren, for example. His behavior in his few scenes is extraordinarily weird, unpredictable, and buffoonish, and he makes some very odd choices that seem counterintuitive to things he and his servants – Mr. and Mrs. Davidson – say. By the end of the book, we get some of his history, but nothing that explains his personality or the choices he makes. That’s just the opposite of what it should be. What we need is insight into his character; some historical facts about him are useless unless they are used to do just that. But sadly, they don’t. Melton makes us wait for the promised next volume to see if he will provide anything satisfactory then.

While I share a great many of Melton’s literary inspirations, I think he is too caught up with imitating them and paying them tribute, such that his own originality and vividness suffers. If a writer can’t put down a paragraph without quoting someone else, there is little room for his own ideas. The great writers that Melton admires all had their own writing voices, their own passions, their own stories they burned to tell, and I wish he would spend more time developing his own than reminding me of theirs. This isn’t a bust of a book by any means – it’s just weak, for lack of a confident storytelling voice.

Other Reviews
J. Holsworth Stevenson @ The Library of Libation

28 thoughts on “Book Review: “Waverly Hall: Relois” by Brian Melton

  1. Your review is very honest, and as unfun as it can be to hear that you didn’t quite succeed as you hoped with a story, I hope any young writer who really cares about becoming a better storyteller would be glad to hear your comments. So if I ever decide to write some epic sort of thing, I may just have to pester you to read it. Issues of finding a voice and style aside, I think my biggest problem as a writer is that I don’t always see the logical holes of my own stories, and it’s immensely helpful to have someone, like my sister, hear my ideas, and then tell me, “Yeah, that sounds pretty good, but this bit didn’t make sense…”

    The issue of how much to reference your inspirations is a tricky one; I don’t think even the best authors are 100% original. We all get inspired by the great stories we hear. But the best writers can take that inspiration and put it together in new ways that are not derivative. And that’s the part that takes practice. I read a story recently (Finder, as reviewed on the Egotists Blog) that referenced a lot of my favorite stories as part of the lush, background world–they worked to create a kind of literate and cultural history for a unique story set in a futuristic sci-fi world. And actually, the second volume of the Finder library had a fascinating story arc that dealt with the issue of story originality, i.e. “if we’re inspired by everything we read and watch, how can we claim to write anything original?” I think your answer is pretty dead on: tell the story you burn to tell. Underneath it all, it will be inspired by all the things that moved your heart, but it will also be your own, the story that only you can tell.

    1. Oh please do pester me about that! I’ve had a little practice, editing Blake’s first two books and Michelle’s novel, and I’d love to give my thoughts on any work-in-progress of yours. I tend to focus on prose style and character motivations, but I also try to see the story’s big picture. When editing, that is. I too have difficulty seeing my own stories’ big pictures sometimes.

      I remember Lewis, in his preface to the Space Trilogy, acknowledging his debt to H.G. Wells. And Tolkien never denied his inspirations in the Kalevala and the Volsungasaga. It all depends how you handle it. Merely referencing your inspirations just for the sake of homage rarely goes over too well, unless it’s very subtle and doesn’t call too much attention to itself. For example, in Waverly Hall, the character named Selcwis is an obvious homage to C.S. Lewis, but since it mostly extends to his name and his role as a keeper of stories with Christian themes, it’s not so bad. (So, Brian, you can keep that character and his name-homage. I liked it–just develop him more!) Or Ransom in the Space Trilogy, who is an homage to Tolkien mainly through his homely nature and profession as a philologist. I think it can even be okay to talk directly about specific books and authors in your story — just as long as it makes sense for those characters at that time in that story. For instance, I’m fascinated by the idea of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but my distaste for anything with Alan Moore’s name on it prevents me from reading it.

      I’m less convinced that references to video games belong in a novel that doesn’t deal specifically with them. But Blake probably disagrees with that.

      1. Challenge time? :) You don’t have to answer here, or quickly, David, but I would like to hear why you are skeptical of video-game references in a novel not dealing with them specifically.

        1. Haha, well, it’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment, but basically I think that the thing alluded to should have some depth and meaning inherent in itself, and video and computer games are far less likely to have that. Not impossible, but their very interactivity as games makes them very different from literature, even when they have a storylines (as many increasingly do). But that’s getting into the “Are digital games art?” debate, which may only be tangentially related to my half-joking comment.

          1. Nah, I’m not interested in the intrinsic worth of video-games. I’m just calling you on snobbery because I consider you my friend. I’m a snob about some things too, so this is definitely Pot pointing out a smudge on Kettle. In a friendly way, I promise. I do wish type was capable of conveying tone, because then you’d know that I’m not being too serious either. ;)

            References have a place in acknowledging or paying homage to sources of inspiration, and I am sure you agree that sources of inspiration are not always of high intrinsic value. I wouldn’t compare the worth of Till We Have Faces to Final Fantasy VI, but I cannot deny the impact the latter had on the growth of my imagination, nor the characters and elements in my worlds that are owing to that game.

            1. O_o I hit the “post” button by accident. It’s only luck that it didn’t cut me off in the middle of a sentence. *puffs out cheeks* where was I? Oh, yeah…

              So, if/when you read any of my stories, you will be reading something inspired by a mix of mythology, literary greats, history, people, real landscapes, and… video games. You won’t get through three chapters of anything without running across something that is video-game-inspired, and sometime… if I think about it, I might even throw in a reference to the Phantom Train, or Narshe. XD

              Just for clarity, I am not an advocate of children playing tons of video games. A little goes a long way.

              Goodnight David, I’ll try to be good and stop pestering you for now.

              1. That’s okay. +) I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a serious novel referencing a game. I just have a hard time imagining an allusion to, say, Halo or Zelda as having the same power and dignity as an allusion to Homer, Dickens, Rembrandt, Tennyson, or some other great work by a great artist. I’d have to see an allusion to a video game that really made sense and added to the story first.

                But you know, some people still don’t fully accept movies as art, either, whereas I fully do. I wouldn’t be surprised if film references start cropping up in my stories, and maybe some readers would think that even an allusion to Citizen Kane isn’t dignified enough for literature.

                1. That is fair. :)
                  My point is simply that intrinsic value and inspiration are not always wedded (though they often are). And a reference needn’t be something large, either. Most references are caught only by the people who would enjoy seeing them.

          2. David,

            Regarding computer games, there I have to definitely disagree with you. They’ve shown a dramatic improvement over the past ten years and there are some that frankly rank on up there with some of the best imaginative works our culture is currently producing.

            As an example, I would point you toward the Mass Effect trilogy. In terms of world depth, storyline, characterization, etc. it easily ranks up with the “Star” series (meaning Wars/Trek/Gate) that people heap such praise upon. If the world is given enough time and more outlets beyond the gaming world, I could see it even eclipsing some of them.

            I think that games are dragged down and ignored for a number of different reasons. First, most “intellectuals” have never experienced them to any depth and they don’t care to try. My college students are always amazed when I can talk to them intelligently about something like Skyrim. Then, there is the assumption that anything “popular” must also be vulgar (and many are, of course). Also, like most things, they vary widely in quality. For every “masterpiece” you can find half a dozen pieces of trash.

            I also think that the form’s rapid development has hurt it. Most of us formed our opinions of computer games when they were really still in their infancy. They’ve developed so fast that most people not paying attention find it hard to believe exactly how much has changed.

            In the end, the computer references in my book were aimed at the young adult crowd. Like referencing sports in history books, I had no expectation that it would resonate with intellectuals and was prepared to take my lumps from them on that one.

            Still, I would encourage you to give them another look. You’re missing a lot of great ideas/experiences if you don’t!

            Best Regards,

            1. Oh I’m aware of how amazing games have gotten in the past decade. While mostly a strategy gamer myself, I’m still reasonably familiar with all the latest RPGs and other story-based games. I’ve played through some of the first Mass Effect and loved it (my poor laptop can’t run anything less than about 6 years old, so I have to play at a friend’s house). And yeah, the stories are getting pretty good in a lot of them. The upcoming Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has famed author R.A. Salvatore penning its story and mythology, and I’m bummed that my computer can’t run Skyrim because I love open-world adventuring. I own a few game soundtracks, including the orchestration of the Zelda music, and they’re easily equal to much of the best movie music. And combine that with a lot of the graphic design and concept art and whatnot, it’s a no-brainer that many of the parts that make up digital games are indeed art.

              What keeps me skeptical about calling video games as a whole an art form — and thus putting them on an equal level with literature, film, painting, poetry, and sculpture, etc. in terms of potential greatness — is their fluidity. If ten people read a book, they will have ten different experiences, but the book itself will remain the same. Same with a movie, a painting, etcetera. The artist specifically placed each piece of his work to create an effect, and we can marvel at or critique the placement of each piece. But with a game, the player’s choices affect too much of the moral and thematic nature of the experience. Example: Player 1 plays through Mass Effect and role-plays consistently, making sure that all her choices both in conversations and combat reflect a consistent character she has chosen for Shepard. If we took Player 1’s story and wrote it in novel form, we might have a fascinating story with a great character study and character development. But Player 2 plays through Mass Effect just to shoot things and his choices — from a character perspective — are inconsistent. If we took Player 2’s playthrough and turned it into a novel, we’d have a story with some neat parts and interesting ideas, but really confusing and weak character development that doesn’t make much sense. The objective artistic value changes too much depending on the gamer’s input.

              I like games (in fact I was just playing a Rome:Total War mod before writing this), but I’m still not ready to call them art. Games that are closer to art are probably ones that give the gamer less control over the overall experience. I haven’t yet played Shadow of the Colossus, but I’ve heard it creates a unique and powerful atmosphere. And then there is this brilliant little flash game Explore, where the gaming aspect is minimized and the emotional and atmospheric element is emphasized. That’s getting closer to art, as I understand it.

              1. This may come from part of my own ignorance on the finer points of art, but I’ve never really followed why interactivity is an issue. It seems a little too postmodern for my taste. I’ve always thought of different works–fiction, non-fiction, movies, painting, etc. etc.–as possessing different amounts of potential. The master works possess far more potential than others, and I don’t base my opinion of it on any one person’s ability to access that works potential to the fullest (even my own).

                What I mean by that is I think someone like Tolkien is a master and the LOTR masterpieces whether or not we all understand him to the fullest potential. Lewis is an even better example–he is regularly derided by modern literary critics and philosophers alike. Their inability to appreciate his depths doesn’t affect my evaluation of him in the least for the simple reason that I don’t find their understanding of him to be deep enough to be convincing.

                I wonder if computer games don’t just accent the interactivity far more than we’re used to seeing. There’s much more room for “idiot readers/players” to only get their feet wet than to really dive in than with a book, where the reader is forced to follow the author’s specific path.

                I also wonder how much of it is intellectuals just being lazy. We’re used to having someone just hand us a story-line and characters on a plate. Computer-games make you work for your supper–or for the next plot point. Worse, perhaps, with games like Mass Effect, much of what happens depends on our own ability to make good decisions and that ratchets up the level of frustration when we suddenly realize that things aren’t going the way we’d like and we have OURSELVES to blame, not the author. :)

  2. David,

    Thanks for an honest, frank review. I greatly appreciate the time you took with the book, and you’ve given me many, many things to consider.

    I suppose the good news is that I had already abandoned the references in principle. In fact, I really had by the end of the book. They obviously never worked remotely like I intended them to work, and, in the end, they just obscured what I think mattered much more. You’re also right about Reep seeming forced. In my original conception of the series, he had a much more important role to play in later books, but that necessitated having him in this one, or so it seemed.

    I don’t want to overreact, but I have to admit the plain justice of your points. That’s going to lead to a hard look not only at revisions to the book itself, but to anything I write in the future. Like many of us, still have stories I think are worth telling, but I don’t want to sacrifice many other important things in order to tell them–not unless I can do it right and make them worth something.

    No, I’m not implying that your review made me want to stop writing. :) But strong, correct criticism should make you stop short–if one has a brain in his head that is!

    Thanks again,

    1. Brian,

      You’re very welcome, and thanks for the comment. I’m very glad to hear you’ll keep writing — it didn’t come out so well in this review, but there really was a lot I enjoyed. The parts in Paucee were actually handled pretty well; I didn’t feel that the Keeper’s government was watered down or anything, it was genuinely fearsome and ominous. I’m pretty impressed by what you were trying to accomplish, and I can’t really blame you for not quite succeeding, considering how I myself have enough difficulty making everything work in a short story.

      Thank you for responding honestly and humbly; whatever my thoughts on the book itself, I am incredibly honored to have reviewed your book, and I will happily read your future books as well. In many ways, you seem a kindred spirit to me, at least in literature and faith.

      God bless you and your writing endeavors — for after all, what are subcreators without the original Creator? +)

    2. Brian, it is too rare for someone to take sharp, constructive criticism with as much grace and thought as you just have. Your response alone shows that you have a lot of potential. I hope that I can be as heedful when I face criticism like this.

      God bless you in your future endeavors!

  3. In reply to both David and Brian (I’m starting a new reply thread for practical reasons):

    I’m both a lover of stories and a gamer, and I really see games as yet another medium of storytelling. (Well, some games aren’t stories so much, but lots of them–particularly the good ones–are.) David, what I think you’re articulating is that with an interactive story, the author cannot shape the moral lesson because the game player can make good or bad decisions within the game to create a character who’s either a hero or a villain or something in between. While I agree that a good story should support moral behavior (as George MacDonald has pointed out, you should not show a “good” man doing bad things), I do not think that the interactive nature of video games disqualifies them from being art. While you may not be receiving the kind of lesson in morals you might from an inflexible novel, the game is in a sense offering you an exercise in moral judgment, not much different than the kinds of choices you’d have to make in real-life. Now, many gamers may take that opportunity to try things they wouldn’t actually DO in real life because of the consequences. But I think this is a problem larger than just the issue of virtual reality vs. real life, and I don’t want to solely blame video games for people’s questionable imaginative choices. That said, games *can* reward or punish types of behavior. For example, if you act like a murdering, thieving jerk in Fallout 3, you’ll be shunned in social situations, whereas if you’re a good person, people are receptive and you earn Karma points which actually increase the instances of good things happening to you. Some games do reward behavior they shouldn’t, which is upsetting to me, but I think that’s a symptom of a widespread cultural problem.

    I used to think that books were unequivocally better than movies, despite actually enjoying watching movies. In college, I watched a film for an anime class with a pleasingly mind-boggling story that I realized *could not* have been told in prose. It required a visual medium to be told. And I think the same for video games. They are a different medium than either prose books, graphic novels, or movies, and can therefore tell a different kind of story, one that’s immersive and interactive in a way that the other mediums are not. Video games won’t replace any other kind of storytelling medium. However, I believe that it may be more helpful to try to see them as a medium that is uniquely able to provide a certain kind of storytelling experience, rather than wanting them to accomplish something better suited to another medium.

    1. I think you have the best argument yet, Doni, and I’m happy to let it stand. The moral aspect is certainly part of my skepticism towards video games as art, but I recognize that’s mostly because the vast majority of games have been those that pander either to immoral or amoral impulses. And you’re right — we can’t judge an art form based on the worst representatives. As Lewis said, we must always go to the best representatives to try to understand it. And as the existence of many bad readers does not invalidate literature, neither does the existence of many vulgar, immature, or just plain thoughtless gamers invalidate games as art or entertainment.

      But the other part is that I guess I just see a piece of art as being a specific thing deliberately created by a person or persons to be a certain way. Wikipedia’s basic definition of Art is “the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” So the sculptor carefully chooses every chip from the marble, and every person working on a film contributes their talents to make the film a specific thing. With a game, though, the gamer chooses to deliberately arrange some of the game’s most important elements, differently each time, and with no regard to pleasing senses or emotions, but mostly just to win. The literary equivalent would be Choose-Your-Own Adventure books. Do they count as literature as art? Well, technically they are written works. I’ve never read a good one that even tried to use the format as an art, and so I’ve always counted them as not true literature. Their stories don’t matter and the reader’s “choices” are contrived and don’t really matter. Is it possible to conceive of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure that was brilliantly and sensitively constructed? I guess so…but I have a hard time conceiving it. Doesn’t invalidate the concept, but I’m still left skeptical. And both games and Choose-Your-Own Adventures have the concept of “winning” at the end.

      Which brings me to this: Can winning be a part of art?

      My opinion at the moment: games and art are just two different categories, but they have elements that can cross over. Basketball is not an art, but the designs of a basketball uniform could be, or the elegant lines of a basketball player in perfect form going for a layup could be. In fact, the individual skills of basketball — dribbling, passing, shooting — can be honed and perfected to a physical art much like dancing or ballet. A scrimmage of basketball can even produce great emotions, drama, and stories. But I’d still say the game itself is not art. Does that make sense? Or am I just a reluctant snob at the tender age of 24?

      1. Every age and snobbery come hand in hand. ;) but that is neither here nor there.

        Though it is a ways off from my original point, I will reluctantly take up the argument of games as art. As a good art student, I must first say that the concept of “what is art” is highly fluid, and very open to interpretation. I come down on the side of art being a combination of strong concept and effective execution of that concept. It’s a bit more broad than Wikipedia’s definition.

        Disclaimer over, this is what I think on video-games specifically. I am going to leave the pure visual aspect of games alone in this argument.
        Games can do a number of things. They can create competitions either between gamers or between the game and the player, they can tell stories, they can create atmosphere, and they can allow the player to create.
        Two of these things, competition and allowing the player to create, are not, in my opinion, art.

        The other two, however, can be, and can elevate a game to art regardless of the incorporation of the first two. A game that manages to tell an effective story, regardless of the player’s choices, has some artistry in it. As with literature, a “bad reader” or in this case a player who is uninterested in the story, does not invalidate the existence of, or artistic worth of the story in question. As to the medium’s ability to tell an effective story, I think it is unfair to compare games to choose-your-own-adventure novels. The latter is trying to do something that is inconsistent with the medium in which it was created. Part of the beauty and artistry of a novel lies in its limitations. The medium of games has different limits, different strengths and weaknesses, and allows for a different form of story-telling. It LENDS itself to letting an interested “reader” explore aspects of a story, to move on or go deeper as they wish, where the writers have thought and cared enough to offer the opportunity. In other words, what choose-your-own-adventure novels try to do and fail, due to their limitations, is exactly what video-games are adapted to do well. The more games develop, the more writers are realizing this potential in the medium. Video-games are simply adapted to tell stories in a very different way… this is why I usually dislike games that are based on stories told first in other mediums. Stories born in video-games tend to be much more powerful in video-games and would not translate well to film or novel.

        The other form of art that arises in games, and even arises in the early ones, before story really came into the equation, is atmosphere. All art that is worth anything creates atmosphere. It DOES something to us and in us. To me, a game’s worth has always been closely tied to the mental and emotional doors it opened or failed to open. Even in the days of midi-music and pixel-people (showing my age, I know), the game creators were trying to evoke worlds. One can examine the elements of their work and see what was effective and what was not. The same holds true with games today, and it is the effectiveness of this gestalt that separates the games that are worth their existence, to the ones that fall apart. I have games where I have old saves that exist simply for the purpose of allowing me to go back and wander through an area that has a certain effect. I do this for my writing, because some games effect me in a similar way to some music, or some piece of writing. For some games, the atmosphere created is so powerful that a sound from the game is enough to put me into the right mindspace. In my opinion, when a game-creator had a concept, and executed it with such craftsmanship as to make it highly effective, that game-creator has elevated his or her craft to the level of art. It is rare, in video-games as it is in all mediums, but it does happen. I can name games I enjoy, but that are certainly Not art. I can name games, though, that I feel have earned their places in the canon.

        Aaaaand now I really want to play some games. Time for work, though.

    2. @Urania: Brilliantly put, especially on the moral dimension.

      I wonder if that doesn’t also somehow contributed to some people’s distaste for games too. If you see a character make a poor decision in a book, you are somewhat detached from it. You sympathize with them, regret it for them, but it was still their decision. If a character makes a poor decision in a good game, you usually have no one to blame but yourself. I know I find that personal aspect–that feeling of responsibility–much more frustrating than what I often see in a book.

      There are plenty of games that muck that up too. I’m thinking in particular of Fable 2. Generally, a good game but there are at least two key points of the story where you are forced into an either-or situation with no possibility of a truly good outcome. Had I read that in a novel, I would have accept it–it was beyond my control. In the game, I still don’t accept it and I found myself angry at the developers for forcing me into it.

      @David: I’m wondering about the “winning as a part of art.” If we accept novels as a form of art, then the theme of winning is certainly there–many of them have characters that “win” over adversity of various kinds, such as the LOTR and Narnia. So, it seems to me that the question is more of who is responsible for the winning. If the author makes his/her characters win, we consider it normal. Is the problem then that someone else takes that over in a game?

  4. @Brian: When I finish a novel where the heroes win, then the heroes are the ones who won, not me. I don’t feel I’ve won, because I don’t feel it was ever my fight. Rather, I watched my friends the characters fight and win. And I watched them make their own choices and got to know their inner thoughts. In a game, I’m making the choices for the characters and their inner thoughts hardly exist, because as a gamer I’m supposed to provide the inner thoughts myself. In a game I have to project myself onto a character, but that’s not necessary in a novel (although it can happen).

    @Anne (jubilare): If art is defined primarily as a type of experience, then yes, I believe you are wholly right. Particularly in the case of atmosphere, which is also an artistic element that is extremely important to me. Even the earliest simplest games can evoke strong atmosphere, and while I don’t know of any existing game that itself can be deemed great Art (even as they may be truly great games), there are some that have brought on strong moods and piqued my imagination beyond the mere escapist thrill of moving the characters/units and having the adventure/war. (Though I admit to having no game experiences quite as strong as you describe, and nothing remotely approaching those which I have had in countless books and a good many movies.) Regarding the story aspect, well…you might be slowly converting me. Your analysis I agree with, of course; that an “unliterary” player does not invalidate a game’s good story, even if he plays it in a bad way. Games are fundamentally different from literature or film or music, and thus it is right to expect them to have different limitations and abilities. If they are art, they will of necessity provide a different artistic experience than other forms.

    I suppose the remainder of my skepticism comes down to this: I am not willing to call any game I have ever played a work of art (though again, they have individual elements that are art). Even painting in its infancy produced great Art (artists have always admired the clean lines and evocative colorings of many cave paintings), but in this still-young period of video games, I don’t think we have any yet. I don’t think any games are made in order to be Art, but maybe that is changing (Bioshock Infinite seems to be going kind of social-criticism-artsy, from the trailers). We have art films and art books (though I dislike the terms, snobbish as they are), so will we soon have “art games?” Will some inspired game maker start burning with a need to make this one great game, as many authors and filmmakers have stories they desperately need to tell?

    Perhaps. Maybe there are some already out there. If there are, though, my computer can’t run them.

    And that, even with games being art, will always be a hindrance to it: games aren’t very accessible. Anyone can look at a painting, hear some music, read a book, or sneak into a theater and see a movie. To play a current game you have to have some money to spend on high-end systems and be tech-savvy enough to get it running and fight bugs as they appear, and you can only share the experience with friends if they also have all these things and you guys are connected by the Internet or LAN. And not everyone is able to play games. The experience of the game depends on you being “good enough” with your gaming skills to progress; and these seem a little more restrictive than the reading skills necessary to progress through a difficult book. If games are art, they are the most exclusive kind yet developed.

    What games are you currently playing? I just played a round of Rise of Legends, the old fantasy/steampunk RTS spinoff of Rise of Nations. Not art, but some good fun and pretty terrain. ‘-)

    1. David… I do really respect your opinion, but I don’t entirely agree. I don’t think accessibility should be the first criteria for art. We could say that some symphonies and poems are not exactly easily accessible–they take multiple readings, listenings, and some patience to understand and fully appreciate–but does that make them in any way less of a work of art? Or even if we locked every painting in the world up and only let a few people in to see them, that wouldn’t make those paintings any less works of art, would it? As Lewis urged in Experiment in Criticism, we should not dismiss a book (a piece of art) if there are those who can enjoy it as art, even if most people don’t. I understand that not everybody has the time, money, or desire to spend gaming, and that’s okay. But I don’t think we should let that disqualify a well designed and written game from being called art.

      I believe games can be art. They’re living, interactive stories that have the power to move the imagination as well as story in a book can. Well-designed games are also a pleasure to explore–to find all the little details the designers have woven into the environment and characters’ actions and interactions. Games give the the opportunity to visit and explore beautiful places from the imaginations of others, to admire the vistas and splash through the waterfalls of somebody else’s imagination. Don’t you think that’s pretty magical in it’s own way?

      I’m curious, which games have you played?

      1. Sorry, I should have made my point a little clearer. I wasn’t saying that accessibility is a criteria for art at all — I was actually trying to acknowledge that it isn’t, but that lack of it is rather a hindrance to games being accepted and experienced as art in the mainstream. I should have mentioned the mainstream to make it clear. A lot of people don’t even think of movies as art even though they see hundreds of them a year, so I think it’ll be much harder for people in general to think of video/computer games as art when relatively few people play them. To experience any game from the past five years (at least), you need to either have money to spend on a robust gaming system/computer or you must know someone who has one. Case in point — the one game I have heard most universally praised as Art is Shadow of the Colossus for the PS2. I really really want to play it! It sounds fantastic and awesome. But I can’t, because I don’t own a PS2 or know anyone close by who has one and the game. So for now I’m excluded from experiencing this potential work of art. Plus, games have learning curves, some steeper than others. This accessibility isn’t the same kind as that of a difficult poem or abstract painting, because the latter two just need you to look at them for you to evaluate them, but games require that you successfully progress past the challenges to the end — if you’re not skilled enough to do that, you won’t be able to experience the whole game.

        Again, I’m not saying that that means games aren’t art — just that it makes them harder for most people to experience than other forms of art.

        So here’s where I’m at now. You guys have convinced me that the video/computer game format is an art form. As with other art forms, that doesn’t mean all games are Art in the high quality sense, but just that it is possible, theoretically, for a game to achieve that. Personally, as I’ve said, I have not encountered any game that I would call Art on the level of any story or movie I have seen. It seems to me that even a mediocre book has more redeeming artistic value than even a great game of today. I love playing games, but I’d gladly sacrifice them all to save a great work of literature. But that doesn’t say anything about the games I haven’t encountered or the ones yet to be made. Maybe in the coming decades we will see more and more games become better and better art. That’d be exciting. At the very least, you have convinced me of that possibility, and that’s something.

        I’m solidly a strategy gamer at the moment, though I like exploring other genres too. My first real computer game was Age of Empires II, and it fed my just-blooming love of history. Before that game I’d never even heard of the Mongols and the Byzantines. Since then I’ve become enamored with the Civilization and Total War series. They’re expansive, endlessly replayable, somewhat intelligent, and provide neat worlds for my imagination to work its own magic and stories.

        I’ve played lots of the Unreal Tournament series with friends and enjoy it, but wouldn’t call those gaming experiences art at all. They are shamelessly twitch-based, money-making machines, but they make a good arena for quick matches of friendly competition. I’ve also played some of the original Far Cry, which is much more moody and interesting from an atmosphere and exploration perspective. The story was well-told, but cliche, and had no real characters of interest. The focus was the tropical island you got to explore and the slow, semi-realistic ways you got to stalk your enemies and pull off carefully-planned, but James Bond-ish stunts.

        As for RPGs, I like best the free-roaming storyless ones like Sid Meier’s Pirates, Freelancer, and Mount & Blade, all of which let you interact with a larger world and figure out your own story to tell rather than forcing you along a set path. I enjoyed Neverwinter Nights the first time, but get quickly bored when trying to replay it; the story just gets in the way and is so boring, and I get tired of having to start over at level 1. I played about half of the first Mass Effect at a friend’s house and enjoyed its story much more than that of any other game’s.

        I regret that I haven’t had access to the Zelda or Prince of Persia games, as I think I would like them a lot. But since I don’t yet, I haven no emotional attachments to them. In fact, I’ve never met a character in a video game to compare with any of the characters I love in my favorite books or movies. But again, maybe that’s just because I haven’t yet played Zelda.

    2. I think that atmosphere and effect are primary results of art, not that they, themselves are art, if that makes sense. I consider some games to be art because of the intent and craftsmanship/thought that went into it in order to create a certain effect in its “literary” players. :)

      Ah, but did painters, in painting’s infancy, consider their work to be art? Or is that something people who came upon it later saw in it? For most of history, what we consider art was also considered functional. I feel that what we should consider art is always a marriage of strong concept and skillful/powerful execution. I would consider cave painting to be artistic because the execution is often graceful and skillful, even though the original concept is lost to us and the tools with which the artists could create were limited. I would argue that some of the earliest games show the same capacity for concept, and the same skillful use of their limited tools, as cave-painting. It is much harder to create atmosphere with pixels and midi music than it is with the graphics and sounds of today, and yet we have games that create very strong feelings in someone who is open to them. There is a reason that the original Metroid has spawned other games that strive to be like it and, in my opinion, fail, or that the distinctive sounds of the original Zelda game bring an instant reaction from people of my generation. Games, in their infancy, created some pretty amazing diamonds among the dross, and modern games are building on that foundation while expanding the use of the medium’s abilities. It is telling that, with all of the current advances in game technology, the ratio between games and Games is around the same.

      The trick is to take the art for what it is, on its own terms, considering the capacity of the medium of the time, and judge it so. Comparing it to things that are too unlike is only helpful in the most abstract way.

      Access to games is more of a social issue than an artistic one, I think. I cannot afford to have multiple new gaming systems or a high-performance computer, nor do I have the time to spend on playing lots of games. I am picky about the ones I start and enjoy the ones I have in the same way I return to really good books.

      I am playing the original Baldur’s Gate game, through a program that sews it together with its expansion and sequel. Long-term project, but very interesting to me. Shadows of Amn (the sequel) is a game I very much enjoy and which is an excellent example, for its time, of a choose-your-own-path story. I also got Final Fantasy 1 and 2 for Playstation… old games, but ones I have never played. I am itching to play Final Fantasy Tactics and Zelda 3 again (like good books, I return to these two and a few others every year or two), and I would also like to find time to finish Zelda, Twilight Princess. :D

      1. I love Twilight Princess! I have played it once and return to it every so often to work on a second play through. I’m also playing Ocarina of Time, the Gamecube port. I’m a big fan of the Zelda games, even though these two are the only ones I’ve played much of. I’ve done parts of Link to the Past, on Super Nintendo. When I finish Ocarina, I will probably try to get another one of the Gamecube ones, maybe Majora’s Mask? Or Windwaker.

        1. I love Twilight Princess too! I played the first, second and third Zeldas as a child (the third, Link to the Past was and is still my favorite, and I loved the original game, but the second one was a disappointment). I have wind waker, ocarina and majora, but I have not played them yet due to time constraints.
          All that stands between me and starting the final area of Twilight Princess is one of those darn poe souls… I am missing one and I can’t seem to find it.

      2. For my reply….well, um, see my reply to Urania’s comment, I guess. +) Now, whether or not cave painters saw their work as art is unknown. But I do think any kind of art is intended by its artist to provoke an emotional or intellectual experience. Even sculptures commissioned by politicians for their own glory are still meant to convey these experiences, and thus are art even if the artist was more money-minded than high-minded.

        Again, in case it still isn’t clear, you guys have pretty much convinced me of video gaming as an art form with the potential of producing Art with the capital A. But since I still haven’t experienced any games that are art, do you guys have any suggestions? You’ve both said you know games that have affected you on the level of great stories — which are they? (I’m sort of taking Zelda as a given, considering the above comments, hehe.)

        1. I rather suspect that it is the newness and public appeal movies and video-games (regardless of the access) that keeps many people skeptical of their artistic value, but I do agree that the limit of access to games, especially now that they have become so very expensive, is a hindrance to people experiencing them. Films are getting harder, not easier, to view, and yet they have been around long enough to establish themselves as an artistic medium in the minds of most people.

          Ah, but think… most Christian art over the ages has been intended to convey ideas and stories to the illiterate, to raise their minds to higher things, or instill them with a fear of hell. Likewise the Egyptian frescoes were intended to tell stories and convey meanings. These are very practical intentions, often forgotten by non-art-historians when considering the meaning and purpose of art. My point is merely that the cave-painters, like many artists after them, were likely creating for a specific purpose, and the skill which they employed to that purpose was a matter of craftsman’s pride. I doubt the creators of early video games considered that they were doing anything higher than creating a fun game, but the craftsmanship, care and attention employed in the creation even of some of the early games, elevates them to a kind of primitive art. From there, the form continues to develop.

          I am a little hesitant to suggest games, as my reactions to them are highly visceral rather than analytic. My brother loves the strategy games you mentioned, and many that I love as well, but I have never discussed what and why with him. Characters are not largely what I look for in games, as the medium is still figuring out how to do them well, save for a very few shining examples. What I get from games is imagination relating to worlds, atmosphere and plot-lines. The others may have more insight as to games with powerful characters… I would not consider Link or Zelda compelling at all… it is their world that keeps me coming back.

          I never liked Neverwinter Nights much… probably because I played Shadows of Amn first and was spoiled. Baldur’s Gate: Shadows of Amn is, as far as my technology allows me to play, the best D&D game out there, and as far as D&D allows, it has more twists and subtleties than other games (not to say it is always subtle).
          I tend to love the Final Fantasy and Zelda series, but I have neither liked all the games in each, nor played all of them. Depending on whether or not you can stand old graphics, I would point you towards FFVII or FVIII. My personal favorite is FF Tactics.

        2. Great stories… Well, yeah, Twilight Princess. I was really sad to say goodbye to that game. (If you really, really want to play it, you can probably get an old Gamecube. I paid $25 for mine, used, on and it still works splendidly.) I’m also really enjoying Dragon Age: Origins. It’s a fantasy RPG with a somewhat typical LotR type “evil is rising and you must combat it” story, but the characters are really fun, and I’ve really enjoyed the role-playing. And there is a lot of depth to the world, if you care to read all the documents and history texts you pick up in the game. It’s also available for PC. I’ve also just started the Uncharted series, starting with Drake’s Fortune, and I’m enjoying the story and characters. And Em tells me they just get better as the series goes.

          If I had to pick the most visually beautiful game I’ve ever played, I’d have to go with the 2008 Prince of Persia game. The game play gets a bit repetitive (though I didn’t get bored) and the storyline isn’t extremely novel or deep, but the world–so beautiful! It’s a gorgeous, fantasy dreamscape of Arabian nights palaces and desert canyons. And the other thing I like about the game is that the two main characters actually develop a lot over the course of the game. The roguish “prince” protagonist and the runaway princess Elika start the game by arguing with each other a lot, but by the end, they’ve developed this lovely camaraderie and have come to trust one another. They still tease each other, but you know it’s for fun. This one is also available for PC.

          You might also be able to get a cheap PS2 used in order to play Shadow of the Colossus. I’m excited, I discovered just now that Sony has rereleased ICO and Shadow of the Colossus for PS3. I’ve played it bit of Colossus, and have been told ICO is really good, too. So many games, so little time… And there is a new game in that series coming forth sometime this year (hopefully) called The Last Guardian, and it looks beautiful.

          One last comment on the “accessibility” of games, and then I’m going to shut up. You say you need to have the skill to actually progress through a game for it to be fun. This is true, and if you only play a few times a year, it could be frustrating not having the ability to pick up the controls easily. However, compared to learning the skills you really need in order to read a difficult poem and understand it… It has taken me far more years to acquire the reading skills. You can understand the “surface” of a story or poem by just looking at it, as you say, but in order to get deeper than that, I do think you need years of practice to hone your skills of asking questions of a text, learning to tease things out of little hints here and there. So, compared to that effort, I think learning to use a game controller takes substantially less time (even compared to the whole amount of time spent gaming overall). I understand that reading is a higher priority for most people like you and me, but if gaming is something one really would like to enjoy, even occasionally, I don’t think acquiring the skills required are one of the larger hinderances.

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