Reading while gaming
Reading while gaming

Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, my daydreams have taken on an apocalyptic flavour: scavenging through post-fallout wastelands, or fending for myself on a remote desert island. I know I am not alone in this. Downloads of disaster movies and dystopian novels both spiked during lockdown, for reasons it doesn’t take a therapist to figure out.

And so I found myself finally giving in and downloading The Last of Us, swifty followed by its sequel The Last of Us 2, 2020’s hit video game. For years, friends have been imploring me to play the series, usually with the line: “It’s like watching a film!”, which never elicited much more than a shrug. What I wish they had told me instead is that gaming these days is much more like reading a novel. 

According to makers Naughty Dog, the story of Joel and Ellie – father-daughter surrogates thrust together in a post-virus outbreak America populated by deranged, zombie-like infected – takes a combined total of 40 hours to complete. Adjusted for my below average skills and tendency to drop the controller when frightened, let’s call it 60 – or around ten novels. The dialogue and visuals are indeed ‘cinematic’, but the work of playing a game with this much depth strikes me as more novelistic: that is to say, you have to consume it actively rather than passively, without zoning in and out. 

None of this will be a surprise to people who, unlike me, play games regularly. But one thing that did seem more of a revelation was the way gaming and reading books soon became symbiotic – not competing forces for my time, but two experiences enriching each other as they went on.

In the middle of playing The Last of Us, I suddenly wanted to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Written in 2006, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has a very similar storyline and clearly influenced the game heavily (along with its 2009 film adaptation). I loved the book 15 years ago, but reading it in tandem with playing The Last of Us enhanced it in ways I didn’t expect. McCarthy’s novel is famously bleak, but full of moments of sudden, arresting beauty that arrive on the page like splashes of cold water to the face. Similarly, Joel and Ellie’s precisely rendered world of abandoned family homes and overgrown parks were full of poetic flourishes – art daubed on walls, letters stuffed in drawers – that functioned as small, defiant signposts of love in a desolate world. The moment the unnamed Father in The Road stumbles over a can of Coke, and the one in which Joel and Ellie find a horde of giraffes still wandering around an abandoned zoo, were just as melancholic and beautiful as each other. 

The game Stranded Deep is far less well known and much more sedate experience than The Last of Us. It involves surviving on a desert island after a plane crash. Your unnamed avatar has to painstakingly collect rocks and sticks to convert into rudimentary tools, worry about their food and water levels, not spend too long in the glare of the sun. I played that while reading Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s classic 1719 account of a shipwrecked sailor who spends a quarter of a century alone on island with nothing but a parrot and some goats for company. Just as Robin toils through Sisyphean task after task, taking years to construct simple comforts (and sometimes having to abandon them halfway through), I too clocked up hours making increments gains on a game that was unusually shorn of shortcuts, something I happily put down to realism rather than clunky gameplay design. I started building a raft, piece by piece, some time in March and set sail in September – just like reading Robinson Crusoe, the repetition of banal details became a kind of gorgeous meditation.

Finally, Assassin's Creed: Odyssey is a stunning open world game set in Ancient Greece in which ‘Sokrates’ and ‘Hippokrates’ are principal characters. Rather than remind me of a book I already loved, this actually set me down a new reading path altogether. The storyline is full of lively, wry nods to the original epic play and ancient philosophy in general, so I bought both. Neither Homer nor Republic are easy reads, but with the game as a reprieve, I dipped in and out happily like I was on turquoise bay in Mykonos.

In each instance, combining the novel with the videogame created a multifaceted immersion, an enhanced sense of ‘espascism’ during a summer when that quality was at an absolute premium. I hid from the surrealist horror of the daily news and sombre check ins with loved ones in what my partner might call my 'apocalypse', 'island' and 'Greek' phases. Sometimes, it felt like the games were providing the ambience to the more emotionally absorbing experience of reading the book, but just as often it was the other way around. 

The point, I suppose, is that it is easy to see artforms as derivative of each other, or on opposing ends of some imaginary spectrum of ‘worthiness’, when perhaps we ought to see them instead as complementary. This summer, a report by the National Literacy Trust concluded that almost three quarters (73.1%) of young people who don’t enjoy reading do, in fact, love video games – because it immerses them in a story. There was a time when I might have seen that as a cause for sadness. Now, I think it’s an opportunity. Instead of positioning books as the antidote to gaming, we could try promoting them to young people as perfect bedfellows on a journey which, whatever changes take place in our technology or habits, never gets old: into new worlds. The good news is we can start by meeting them half way, and play a few games ourselves.

Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

What did you think of this piece? Let us know by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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