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Gamer’s Bookshelf: Gulliver’s Travels

October 16th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one of those classics of English literature that has become so familiar that a lot of people recognize with the content without ever cracking it open. An English doctor gets shipwrecked over and over again in strange worlds, allowing Swift to make a series of satirical comments on his own 18th century England. From this book, the words “yahoo” and “Lilliputian” have entered common parlance.

The first land, Lilliput, is populated by a tiny race of petty plotters. The second, Brobdignag, is a kingdom of gentle and generous giants, whose moral superiority over Gulliver is as great as his was over the Lilliputians. The third section deals most memorably with Laputa, an island of scholars wrapped up in futile experiments that condemn the common people to lives of starvation and tyranny. Finally, Gulliver is stranded in a land of intelligent horses, so perfect in wisdom and virtue that he wishes dearly to join their company, but cannot because he is too similar to the lower primates they use as servants.

Though Tolkien gets a lot of deserved credit for giving birth to the fantasy novel (and therefore the fantasy RPG), I’ve always seen Swift as a fantasy novel. It’s an adventure story, and a traveller’s tale modelled on the tales told by many seafarers in Swift’s day. But at its core, the satire is wrapped in a tale of a man who finds himself in and out of trouble. He meets strange characters, learns things and keeps trying to find a way home. Sort of Quantum Leap with ships and pirates.

Gulliver’s Travels has at least one characteristic that games don’t excel at. It is a satire, and there are precious few of those in the gaming world. There is no shortage of parodies; the entire Space Quest series is a parody of the heroic narrative in science fiction and the recent Bard’s Tale took the parody of RPGs so far as to end up guilty of the sins it was mocking.

But despite the deeply ironic and cynical nature of the gaming audience (Don’t believe me? Check the comments in any major blog or forum) there has been no serious effort to let games be a vehicle of satire.

This shouldn’t be surprising considering how few games can master simple narrative or a convincing plot twist. In spite of its prevalence in the publishing world, satire is one of the hardest literary forms to successfully pull off. For all the satires of academia published in a year, barely any are as cutting as Swift’s take of the narrow-mindedness of the contemporary Royal Society. I keep hoping that Left Behind: Eternal Forces will end up being satire, but somehow I don’t think I’ll be lucky there.

It’s unfortunate that Gulliver’s Travels has been transformed into juvenalia by bad cartoon and film renderings that strip the book of its teeth. Consumed by the image of Gulliver tied to the beach or hauling miniature ships into a harbor, the Lilliputians become cute elven creatures, not the ambitious office seeking martinets fighting a war over the proper end to crack an egg. In the classic 1960 movie, the king of Brobdignag is made a beastly ruler, not a man of deep wisdom and logic. Gulliver’s Travels is a book at once amusing and depressing – one of the finest books ever written.

As a character, even this now commonplace Gulliver has more depth than anything you would find in much contemporary entertainment. He is deeply convinced that he is a moral and upright man, and judges all the nations he meets with a firm conviction in his solidity. But he finds himself defending the corruption of English politics, mostly from patriotism. When asked what he would do with immortality, his first thought is to work at becoming very, very rich. Gulliver thinks the Brobdignagian king a fool for rejecting his suggestions for more destructive weapons. He is a flawed hero through which we see the flaws in ourselves and our times.

Gulliver’s Travels is a simple story but so much more sophisticated than anything we find in contemporary gaming narratives. As always, there is a balance to be struck between telling a story and playing a game, but even those games most heavily invested in narrative fail to do much beyond moving the player from puzzle to puzzle or from beastie to beastie. For all the plaudits justly heaped on Planescape: Torment, The Nameless One is too mysterious to be interesting – player characters are left ciphers most of the time so that you as the player can invest them with a little bit of your own personality.

It’s probably unfair to raise Gulliver’s Travels as a model when games can’t yet reach the Danielle Steele level. And I won’t accept “But videogames are too new!” as an excuse. If great storytelling was possible in video games, I think we would have seen a hint or precursor of them by now. Remember that text adventure games were some of the earliest mass market games, and they couldn’t square the circle of narrative and play.

This does not mean that games cannot offer useful commentary on society or even satire. But it will need to work it out in a way different from the show-and-tell of Jonathan Swift.


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