Ludic Epistolary or, Where Have All The Letters Gone?

In this essay, I discuss the evolution of epistolary fiction from its early days in novels through modern incarnations in video games.

The epistolary novel, or the “novel of letters,” is one of the oldest genres of novel. Comprised entirely of ostensibly “found,” real documents such as letters, interviews and diary entries, the author on the cover of the book (should the author be revealed) is often positioned as the editor and collector of the included documents, rather than the writer.  The form reached the height of its popularity in the 18th century, when novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa in English and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse in French, enjoyed wide readership and sales figures.  Although the popularity of the form declined throughout the 19th century as tastes changed, perhaps the most famous examples of the form, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and especially Bram Stoker’s Dracula, saw publication at the beginning and the end of the century, respectively.  Though the 20th century did not see the epistolary novel vanish from bookshelves, (indeed, an eclectic list of authors ranging from C. S. Lewis and Thornton Wilder to Stephen King and Lemony Snicket have written epistolary works,) the genre never reached the blowout popularity of its heyday, when Rousseau’s novel proved so popular that booksellers could not keep it in stock and rented the book out by the hour.(1)   Readers and critics alike might even be inclined to believe that the moment of the epistolary is over, that while the form is not dead, per se, that history has passed on, tastes have changed, and that producing epistolary today is more of a quaint creative decision on the part of an author than anything else.  This presumption would be wildly inaccurate.  The epistolary is not only alive but thriving.  It simply has moved to a more modern medium.  I intend to provide several examples of what I will be terming “ludic epistolary” from the past decade, explaining how the form has moved forward, and briefly discuss what advantages modern implementations of this classic form have over traditional narrative methods.

The rise in popularity of games as an entertainment medium parallels that of the rise of the novel.  Ian Watt’s pioneering book, The Rise of the Novel was the first to link the growing popularity of the novel as a genre to a broadening ability for the middle classes to read.(2)   Although the specifics of Watt’s work are now challenged on many fronts, the emphasis on new readers is the key.  The new readers “lacked formal education, but had time and money to devote to literary activities.”(3)   It is from this new audience that the novel as a genre emerged.  Literature, previously constrained to classic works and poetry, broadened its scope to include popular forms that were meant for the entertainment of the common reader as opposed to being the exclusive realm of the upper-class scholar.  The games industry likewise achieved broad popularity through an introduction of a new class of player, one who was not the stereotype of the basement-dwelling shut-in or the pasty computer nerd, but the average joe who was looking for entertainment, who wished for a satisfying experience, to be told a story.  As soon as the technology allowed games to tell more complex narratives than “save the princess,” the popularity of videogames was assured.

In 2007, under the direction of Ken Levine, Irrational Studios released the video game Bioshock to universal acclaim, selling millions of copies, earning numerous “Game of the Year” awards, and even a BAFTA.  Bioshock, a first-person exploration of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophies played out via a grand thought experiment: what would an entire city dedicated to the principles of Rand look like?  The player enters the city, Rapture, after things have collapsed.  The citizenry has descended into an every-man-for-himself state of anarchy, where lunatics obsessed with their own superiority sit atop a food chain of degenerates and thugs.  The player looks to discover what happened in Rapture, a story told overwhelmingly via audio logs.  Hidden throughout the game’s environments are dozens of recordings, produced by Rapture’s population, where they speak about their day-to-day experiences, the state of the city’s political before the fall, and the events that led to the collapse of the grand experiment.  One log places the player directly at the beginning of the conflict:

Narrator: Another New Year’s, another night alone. I’m out, and you’re stuck in Hephaestus, working. Imagine my surprise. I just guess I’ll have another drink… here’s a toast to Diane McClintock, silliest girl in Rapture. Silly enough to fall in love with Andrew Ryan, silly enough to-
(sounds of yelling and explosions interrupt her)
Voice 1: Long live Atlas!
Voice 2: Death to Ryan!
Narrator: What… what happened… I’m bleeding… oh, God… what’s happening…
(4)

The player’s contact with characters in Bioshock is brief and limited; there are perhaps five or ten minutes of interaction with others across a fifteen or twenty hour play experience.  While not the first game to utilize the audio log, (games such as Carmine, Metal Gear and Levine’s own System Shock 2 had experimented to a lesser degree with the conceit,) it was Bioshock that demonstrated the power of exploration and document-hunting in communicating a game’s narrative.  Players hear the voice of Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder and Rand stand-in, discuss his concerns about the city’s problems:

It has been brought to my attention that some citizens have discovered ways to… “hack” the vending machines. I should not need to remind each and every citizen of Rapture that free enterprise is the foundation upon which our society has been established. Parasites will be punished. (5)

The effectiveness of the audio log format in telling a story, combined with Bioshock’s popularity and creative successes heavily influenced future games, fundamentally shifting the industry’s methodology.

The epistolary style has since been used in a number of titles across game genres.  In the horror title Amnesia: The Dark Descent from Frictional Games, the player is placed into the shoes of Daniel, an amnesiac trapped in a Prussian castle in the year 1839.  There are even fewer characters here than in Bioshock, and, in a twist, the letters that the player character discovers are largely from himself before he lost his own memory.

19th of August, 1839
I wish I could ask you how much you remember. I don’t know if there will be anything left after I consume this drink. Don’t be afraid Daniel. I can’t tell you why, but know this. I choose to forget. Try to find comfort and strength in that fact. There is a purpose. […] I have tried everything and there is no way to fight back. You need to escape it as long as you can. Redeem us both Daniel. Descend into the darkness where Alexander waits and murder him.
Your former self,
Daniel (6)

The twist, then, is that the player is not only discovering the backstory to the castle in the same way that Rapture’s backstory, but also discovering his or her own personal history and motivations.  Why did Daniel willingly erase his own memories?  How did he come to be in this castle?  The pre-amnesia Daniel of the found letters whose voice is on the page as one reads his letters is a different person from the Daniel that the player embodies, allowing Frictional to at once enable the player to place him or herself into the protagonist’s shoes while still building an independent character. 

Gone Home from The Fullbright Company removes the necessity of finding letters entirely. While the story is still delivered to the player via journal entries, this time from Sam, the sister of the game’s protagonist, the player does not find pages scattered about.  Instead, as the player explores the game’s environments, investigating various objects will automatically trigger narration pulled from the faux-letters that Sam composed in her diary.  The following entry is triggered when the player examines an invoice from a moving company:

Dear Katie,
So much has changed, even just since you’ve been gone. We moved into this house… I’m in a new school… and my big sister being gone for a year doesn’t make it any easier…
It doesn’t feel real. But I’m not going to let it phase me. I used to tell you everything, and if I can’t do it in person because you’re off gallivanting around who knows where, I’ll tell it to this journal. Just like I was talking to you.
(7)

Gone Home’s willingness to break free of artifice by not forcing the player to justify why the journal entry is being read at this moment allows Fullbright to tell a more naturally fluid story.  The eventual acquisition of the journal and why Katie has the knowledge of the contents of her sister’s journal fits neatly into a logical place within the narrative, instead of being hamstrung by individual entries needing to be found individually.  By discarding the literal reception of individual letters, Gone Home is able to dedicate more attention to the issues of queerness and social acceptance that form the core of the narrative, as opposed to getting bogged down in technical fidelity.

From Software’s Dark Souls franchise takes things one step further.  While Gone Home did away with needing to literally collect individual letters, Dark Souls recognizes that things themselves can provide the same level of narration.  Picking up a sword, a coin, an empty bottle or even a root provides the player with a sentence or two of backstory about the item’s origins.  The non-player characters in Dark Souls are notoriously unhelpful; they often know nothing of value or are unwilling to provide what information of which they are in possession.  As items are primarily acquired by defeating foes or finding things on corpses, the player must read these “letters” from fallen creatures.  “One can learn about the sorcerer Logan by ‘reading’ his hat. He is also called Big Hat Logan because his gigantic hat ‘completely hid his face […]. Famously antisocial, Logan used it to block out noise and people’s stares so he could focus on his own thoughts, but it does not possess any special magic powers.’(8)   […] Even though Logan is a figure in the game’s present (unlike most of the people of which one is reading via item descriptions), all statements are set in past tense. This is the case because the player must have killed Logan in order to possess [his hat].”(9)   Every item is a missive from the original owner, and From Software has been deliberate in where these items are placed.  A set of robes found on a body in the sewer indicate who that individual was, while an item from an enemy wearing the same style of robes might surrender information about the work of a specific order of magicians, allowing the player to deduce why that corpse was found in the sewers to begin with and gaining greater insight into the story of what has gone wrong in the kingdom of Lordran.  Dark Souls shows that letters do not need to be literal in order to be read, and that objects can be “read” as effectively as actual epistolary.  It is no coincidence that the vast majority of items found in Dark Souls are clothing and other worn trinkets.  As Peter Stallybrass writes, clothing, “receives us: receives our smells, our sweat, our shape even.  And when our parents, our friends, our lovers die, the clothes in their closets still hang there,  holding their gestures, both reassuring and terrifying, touching the living with the dead”(10) – a bit of an irony given that most of if not every “living” character encountered in Dark Souls is actually undead, but the fact that clothing provides what is perhaps the most intimate window into an individual is no weaker for it.

These examples now arrayed, it becomes clear what narrative advantages exist in a modern ludic epistolary that were unavailable to the authors of the 18th century.  A novel told entirely via letters can only do so much characterization and context-building without straining the credulity of its audience.  Most times, it is presumed that the intended recipient of a letter in an epistolary novel is familiar with the letter’s author, and so a writer needs to do extra work to fill in the characters histories without making the action seem contrived.  After all, when writing a letter to your brother, would you make reference to “our sister, Sarah” or “our childhood home in Albany?”  These contortions are often necessary but always appear contrived, and are unnecessary when working within a digital environment.  The designer of a ludic epistolary has a great deal of freedom in pursuing the illusion that often accompanies an epistolary work, the accepted lie that these documents are true and real, and that they were not authored (as the reader is obviously aware) for the entertainment of the reader but instead were merely found and organized because they were of interest.  The players of a game learn about characters not only from their letters, but also from the settings in which the letter was found.  They are free to not only read the letter left on the desk half-finished, but also to open every single drawer in the desk and search the rest of the room.  The range of activity available in a game opens up perhaps the largest advantage that a work of ludic epistolary has over the traditional written work: space for worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding in fiction is one of the most important aspects of fictional writing in the modern era, despite the fact that “imaginary worlds… have been largely over overlooked in Media Studies, despite a history spanning three millennia.”(11)   Convincing worldbuilding is an essential piece of creating believable fictional spaces.  If the readers do not accept the setting of the story, be it in a book, film, game or other medium, they will be unable to engage in full with the narrative.  Without Middle-Earth, there is no Lord of the Rings, and a galaxy far, far away is essential to understanding the Campbellian twists of Star Wars.  Thus, the explosion of workable space available to the designer/narrator in ludic spaces also explodes the storytelling potential.  No longer constrained by the artifice of the novel form, the room for additional characterization and worldbuilding is increased by an order of magnitude.  Should a player not wish to follow the main thread of the narrative, he or she can simply set out in a different direction and engage with alternate narrative content that nevertheless aids in the worldbuilding by establishing the place and content of the setting.  As Salman Rushdie observes,

One of the things that is interesting about [games] to me is the much looser structure of the game and the much greater agency that the player has to choose how he will explore and inhabit the world that is provided for you.  He doesn’t… in fact, doesn’t really have to follow the main narrative line of the game at all for long periods of time.  There is [sic] all kinds of excursions and digressions that you can choose to go on and find many stories to participate in instead of the big story, the macro story. (12)

The opportunity now exists in ludic spaces to tell epistolary stories that transcend a single plot thread, that can, while still maintaining an epistolary form, pursue dozens or even hundreds of independent narratives concurrently.  By handing over a portion of the creative control usually reserved for the author or director to the player, game designers are able to engage in a process of co-authorship, where the player decides what narrative threads are to be pursued, how the protagonist of a story acts and interfaces with the world, and ultimately how the fate of these imaginary worlds is to be resolved.

Games offer a brave new world for creative expression and iteration on old, established themes.  The medium, even fifty years into its life, is still in its creative infancy as we slowly work to master the tools of production, chart the waters of semiotics and discover how meaning is created when one has little to no control over the experience.  Games have given epistolary stories a breath of fresh air, and expanded out not only the number of stories being told, but the genres in which they are being told – fantasy, science fiction, and more now flourish within epistolary.  By utilizing older forms of narrative as stepping-stones much in the way that early film recycled the conventions of the theatre, we as creators are able to gain a greater insight into how to tell stories, how to create meaningful experiences, and how to produce artistic statements that can stand proudly alongside the history of creative endeavors.

 

1. Botting, Eileen Hunt.  Family Feuds: Wollstonecraft, Burke, And Rousseau on the Transformation of the Family.  New York: State University of New York Press, 2006.  39.

2. Whyman, Susan E.  “Letter Writing and the Rise of the Novel: The Epistolary literacy of Jane Johnson and Samuel Richarson.”  Huntington Library Quarterly. Vol. 70, No 4.  University of California Press: 2007.  577.

3. Ibid.

4. Bioshock. 2K Games, 2007.

5. Ibid.

6. Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Frictional Games, 2010.

7. Gone Home.  The Fullbright Company.  2013

8. Dark Souls.  From Software, 2011.

9. Ascher, Franziska.  “Narration of Things: Storytelling in Dark Souls via Item Descriptions.” First Person Scholar: University of Waterloo. 22 April 2015.  Web.

10. Stallybrass, Peter. “Worn Worlds: Clothing, Mourning, and the Life of Things.”  Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identiy, ed. Dan Ben-Amos.  Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1999.  28.

11. Wolf, Mark J. P.  Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation.  London: Routlidge. 2012. 10.

12. Rushdie, Salman.  “Video Games and the Future of Storytelling.”  BigThink, 29 Nov. 2010.

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