Video games are primarily a visual medium—it’s right there in the word itself. But of course they’re more than that, too. There’s the interactivity, of course, and the sound design can really improve or drag down a game…and then there’s reading. Reading? If we want to pull out the old stereotype, then people play video games instead of reading (which is why video games “are destroying our youth”). But then, that stereotype would also have all gamers as teens or twenty-something dudes living in their parents’ basements and wasting their lives in inept solitude, so we should approach such generalizations with skepticism.
In fact, there’s quite a bit of reading that goes on around video games. From the pre-release coverage and hype to reviews, manuals, and fan communities built around strategies, secrets, and simple discussion, avid gamers often do quite a bit of reading to enhance their knowledge about and enjoyment of our favorite games. Much of this reading (and writing) is social and ongoing.
Reading has also a long tradition, especially in RPGs, of in-world texts that the player can pick up and read. Skyrim, for instance, apparently has eight hundred and twenty books in it! (Counting the DLC, I think.) A small number of these give stat bonuses when read, but the majority are there to flesh out the world and characters and cultures and events. Reading most of these books, in other words, is mainly meant as one more of the many kinds of enjoyment on offer in Bethesda’s epic game.
For some, this is aggravating—if there were no stat bonuses associated with cracking the game’s books, they could ignore them completely, but the lure of the possible bonus pushes them to give books a look, only to be frustrated when, most of the time, all there is inside is text. Really, this is no different than any other kind of side bonus—if you want the marginal benefit, you collect stuff or hunt a certain kind of creature or use a certain kind of weapon—you don’t have to do it if it’s not fun, and the benefits are certainly not enough to ruin the game if you skip them.
For many others, though, books in games like Skyrim are a terrific way to deepen one’s engagement with the game and world. In many games, this occurs less through picking up and reading in-game books than in reading entries in the game’s “Codex” (BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series) or “Database” (Assassin’s Creed series) accessible through the game’s menu. You’ll get a little notification that a new entry has been added and you can choose to check it out now, or later, or never. In most cases, this lets you immerse yourself deeper into a compelling fictional world, a process often extended by companion novels, as in the Dragon Age and Halo series, among many others. In Assassin’s Creed, the database entries actually give you a lot of interesting knowledge about the real historical context for the games (though since the line between historical truth and fictionalization is blurry, one can’t always know which parts are true and which altered for the game). This is actually one of my favorite things about the Assassin’s Creed games (and one of the only things I liked about AC3), that I can get a feel for a particular time and place while playing a (usually) fun game. More than once I’ve looked up something I learned about in Assassin’s Creed to find out what was true and explore deeper.
I was more surprised to discover the importance of reading in Bloodborne (and the Souls series that preceded it). I expect some lore in an epic RPG, but less so in a heavily action-oriented game. But Bloodborne is such a well-crafted game that even though narration isn’t prominent, it’s well done. Do you want to know what’s going on in this game world? Then pay attention to the environments, the brief bits of dialogue, and yes, the written lore. In From Software’s games, lore is revealed in item descriptions. Neither the game nor the manual tell you this, as far as I can recall—you have to be searching for it out of your own curiosity to realize there’s a lot of explanatory info in those item menu descriptions. So this is the kind of worldbuilding that the haters of Skyrim books want—there’s no stat bonus from reading them, so if you don’t want to, you’re not missing anything in terms of gameplay (except, possibly, a hint toward the way to get the secret ‘true’ ending, but not one that’s absolutely necessary).
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, RPGs sometimes came with books, and the game would prompt you to read certain entries instead of actually putting that text on screen for you. This was partly a form of copy protection (copying the book is a bigger hassle than copying the game files) but it also points to the influence on this genre of fantasy literature and a readerly approach to immersion in a fantasy world. Many gamers are also readers, so we have games that require reading (like the resurging gamebook genre) and others that reward it in different ways without requiring it. I think this is as it should be—gaming is a wide enough field that there’s room for all different kinds of games and reading experiences in and around games.
What games annoy you with the ways they ask or require you to read (either inside or outside of the game)? What games do you wish there was more reading (or information) in? Have you ever realized that you missed something important because you didn’t read enough in (or around) a game? Do you blame yourself or the designers?