You might think you’re decent at video games, but there’s a case to be made for how some of the most prestigious authors of all time would probably beat you at Overwatch if the PS4 existed in 1853. After all, they’re highly intellectual creative geniuses who would likely revel in the contemporary world of interactive storytelling. That’s why I communed with seven of my favourite authors from beyond the grave in order to ask what their poison was. The results may surprise you.
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Ernest Hemingway – Dark Souls
In Dark Souls 3, Ludleth of Courland says, “I may be but small, but I will die a colossus.” In The Old Man And The Sea, Hemingway writes, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” When spoken in sequence, these two sentences amalgamate into one of the most powerful statements of all time, which is probably why Hemingway would be wild about Dark Souls.
Power quotes aside, the writing in Dark Souls adheres to Hemingway’s illustrious iceberg theory. Hemingway began his writing career as a journalist, which meant that he needed to keep a minimalistic style designed to deliver facts without editorializing much. This shone through in his later fiction, in which his sentences are rarely over a line long. You can only see the tip of an iceberg, but there’s usually an upside-down mountain submerged beneath the water. That’s how Hemingway wrote: you only see a few words, but there’s a lot of depth imbued in them, unseen, underwater.
People say Dark Souls is ambiguous and strange, but that’s mostly because it’s written in the style of a Nobel Prize winner from the Lost Generation. Hemingway’s writing was never quite as concerned with Lordvessels and Onion Knights as Dark Souls, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t love it.
Jane Austen – Dragon Age: Inquisition
Many people dismiss Jane Austen’s novels as silly stories about marriage without much else to them. These people are idiots.
Jane Austen had an electric wit and stabbed hard with biting satire. The subtext in her novels is teeming with intrigue and radical dissidence in the early Victorian era, and for that precise reason, her favourite game would probably be Dragon Age: Inquisition.
I don’t imagine she’d be particularly fussed about the massive dragon fights, but subterfuge in Orlesian courts? Check. Becoming the ruler of Skyhold? Check. Forging political alliances in order to keep the encroaching darkspawn threat at bay and protect the world from being plunged into perpetual darkness at the behest of someone literally known as The Conductor of the Choir of Silence? Check.
Charles Dickens – Undertale
Dickens is a tough one, mostly because there’s a massive amount of variety in his oeuvre. That’s why I’m going to just focus on his magnum opus, which is The Old Curiosity Shop. Published as a serial that ran in 1840 and 1841, The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Little Nell, an orphaned teenager who lives with her maternal grandfather. According to Queen Victoria, it was “very interesting and cleverly written,” so you know it’s good.
The Old Curiosity Shop is Dickens’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s really weird and that’s what makes it great. That’s why I thoroughly believe that Dickens would adore Undertale. He didn’t write much in the vein of monsters and fantasy, but Undertale’s sheer energy and originality would have given him cause to become immediately enamored with it. I also think that Toby Fox should give automatic writing a shot, which would allow him to channel Dickens’ undead spirit and write in the style of The Inimitable himself. After all, Undertale’s writing was influenced by Mr. Bean, which is heavily Dickensian in its humor and willingness to be a bit silly.
J.R.R. Tolkien – Mass Effect
Tolkien was one of the first authors I ever got really into. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was about seven and almost all of it went way over my head. Although I’d like to say The Professor would be a huge Witcher fan, or that he’d have lost himself in Skyrim years ago, I’m not sure his favourite game would be a fantasy epic. He’d be way more interested in codex and translation than dragons and dwarves, which is why he’d have a field day with Mass Effect.
It’s funny to imagine J.R.R. going full Renegade Shep, although he really would just like Mass Effect for the codex. There are pages upon pages in Lord of the Rings describing trees, and the majority of locations are etymologically derived from Old English (Isengard means “Iron yard,” for example). If you gave him the opportunity to read about why Turians speak as if they’re plugged into a guitar flanger and the biological reasons for a Krogan quad, you wouldn’t see him for weeks. He’d probably end up demanding the rights to put Garrus Vakarian in The Silmarillion.
Kurt Vonnegut – Earthbound
Vonnegut is known for his wit and nihilistic optimism. When you read Slaughterhouse 5 or Cat’s Cradle, the world is quite clearly A Bad Place, but it’s filled with lots of warmth and sincerity. His depiction of the world is also pretty wild, with Tralfamadorian aliens abducting people for their human zoos and Vonnegut himself waltzing into some novels. He writes like a sort of jazzy grandad, which is why he’d love Earthbound’s taxi cab fights and Captain Strong’s “super ultra mambo tango foxtrot martial arts.”
Earthbound has become iconic, despite being less than successful after its initial US launch. It subverts lots of tired RPG tropes in really clever and funny ways, and that’s pretty much what Vonnegut did with science fiction. He was never pretentious with his writing, and at its core it was always very human and sobering.
In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut writes: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” I think Earthbound is pretty much an ode to that sentiment.
George Orwell – Dishonored
This one is quite obvious. George Orwell is best known for his landmark novel, 1984, but he was also an incredible journalist who took a bullet to the throat while fighting against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell was a badass.
Although there’s much more to his oeuvre than 1984 and Animal Farm, I reckon Orwell would have been a massive fan of Dishonored. You can’t write about Big Brother and the Ministry of Love without being the kind of person whose jaw would drop the first time they got caught snooping around by a Tallneck. Dishonored took the “they’re watching you!” trope to a whole new level, conflating ethereal forces with a teched-out Victorian Gothic aesthetic and weird walls of light that disintegrate anybody who tries to walk through them.
Dishonored isn’t just another story sat atop lots of Panopticon-based surveillance scares. It’s nuanced and visceral, and that’s what makes it the perfect game for George Orwell, who’s probably playing it with Jeremy Bentham in heaven as we speak.
Oscar Wilde – Stardew Valley
There is only one game in the entire world capable of enticing the Dublin-born aestheticist mastermind behind The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Grey: Stardew Valley.
There’s a passage in Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband, that describes exactly why he would love Stardew Valley. It wouldn’t be for the gorgeous farm or the gossiping townsfolk, but for the ability to play the game as an utterly selfish person who is only interested in their own capitalist success and is utterly consumed by vanity:
Fashion is what one wears oneself.
What is unfashionable is what other people wear.
Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people.
And falsehoods the truths of other people.
Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.
To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.
This would be Wilde’s mantra in Stardew Valley. A genius who was emphatically in love with himself, Wilde would revel in the opportunity to be the perpetual star of a virtual world. All of the town’s citizens would be mere pawns for him as he gradually ascended the political ladder and enjoyed a blissful, posthumous romance with himself, achieving his destiny as Oscar Wilde, president of the Dead Gamers Society.