Thursday, September 3, 2015

UPDATE: FILLING A VOID


It's been a while since I made a post of any kind regarding books. It might seem strange then that this post will actually be about a computer game. It may even seem blasphemous to post about such a thing on a book blog, but I've discovered some things about myself as a reader during my time with this game and so I figured I'd make a post about it.


Before jumping into the wild world of Guild Wars 2, an online fantasy MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game) I found myself falling into a bit of a reading slump. At the time I really couldn't say why. I've had a fantastic reading year so far, maybe the best I've ever had. And as a previous post stated, I was very nearly done with the Goodreads 2015 Reading Challenge. I felt extremely excited to wrap this up and had four books already in the works, but I just stopped feeling compelled to read and suddenly downloaded Guild Wars 2 which I had purchased and played a good while ago, but really didn't think about for a long time. It was a game that kind of dropped from my interest after a while. I'd played through with a character and tested out a couple others, but I'd never finished my play-through with my main avatar. It felt really random then that I'd suddenly just download and play this game again, but once I had it reinstalled and booted it up once again, I realized something that's either quite profound or remarkably stupid.


A look at my main avatar, Denacten
See when playing a game like Guild Wars 2, players make a character to represent them within the space of the game world. This character is called an avatar, a toon, or basically whatever you feel like calling him/her. Depending on what the game's story is like, a player might feel more or less attached to the character(s) they have made. This particular MMORPG strikes a nice balance between giving players an entertaining story told through private instances (portions of the game that are just for you) while also offering a wide open world in which you and countless other players can hunt monsters, look for treasure, take on missions, participate in random events, craft new gear, and all sorts of other fun activities. This constructs an environment in which an avatar does get to have a sort of personality which is shaped by certain decisions that the player makes both during the character creation stage and throughout their personal story quests. The character I primarily play as is a young human man who belongs to the Thief class which is all about stealth, speed, and carefully executed tricks. He uses a pistol and dagger as his primary weapon set, but also wields a short-bow when things get a bit heavy and he needs to put some space between him and his enemies.

A scene from Denacten's personal story
What does any of this have to do with books? Well aside from the fact that this game has a reasonably well-done story mode, there aren't a whole lot of connections. But within the space of this game is where I found what I'd been sorely missing from my current reads. In a game like Guild Wars 2, I have an entertainment experience that  feels like it belongs to me. I control the actions of characters I make. I get wrapped up in their personal story and become attached to them as a fully fleshed out character. At each turn I have to think about what objective they should take on next, what kind of gear I want to find or make and equip them with. I get to choose what these characters look like, what they wear, and what they do. It certainly helps that Guild Wars 2 is a very pretty game and has aching orchestral music filling the backdrop. It's not a perfect game, but it was giving me something that I'd been craving for a long time, something I wish more books would give to me.

At this point you might be worried that I'm going to criticize literature as a medium, but that's really not what any of this is about. It's true that comparing video games to books is akin to comparing apples with oranges, but if you've read for this long, do try and hear me out. See I'm the sort of person that wants to always feel engaged in anything and everything that I do. I also want to feel some sort of progression, improvement, or general sensation of accomplishment. Good books can give me all of these things. I got all of this when reading Jay Kristoff's Stormdancer, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and even Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy (technically I still need to read the third one, but you get the idea). When I read these books, I read them as an active reader. I felt that my experience was customized to me. Maybe not in the way that a video game is, but certainly by a means that felt special, memorable, and rewarding. There are some other great titles that came to my mind as well, but all of them have a common theme.

I've always been a symbolic, interpretive reader. Some of this comes from going to a high school where teachers encouraged me to dig deeper into the texts we studied, but I think the other piece is something else entirely. Fictional literature is a potent form of entertainment when it is well done. For me what seems to set books apart is when there is something that can be found within the story space. It's this little extra something that lies beneath the main narrative being told. It's all the things between the lines that are up for interpretation. Things that make the story feel as though it belongs to me, that is is somehow my story once I have read it. In Tolkien's The Hobbit, I read the same story as everyone else about an unlikely hero that wound up on a crazy adventure where he accomplished great things and returned home a changed hobbit. Stuffy academic folks call this "The Hero's Tale" and would claim this is a classic  no-fail formula that is present in every story told. I won't get into challenging this assertion, mostly because I don't really care to. The alleged formula behind The Hobbit and stories like it isn't what makes me love them. It is the space between the lines where my own thoughts fill the void that I find to be most engrossing about a book. To me, The Hobbit was not only about a young hobbit's grand adventure, but also a story about answering a call to do something bigger than yourself. I read it as a tale of personal growth, of faith, and of fulfilling one's duty to those around us. This isn't really the basis for a well crafted argument, more of an opinion that any are welcome to agree or disagree with. The point here being that The Hobbit was a story that spoke to my own life experiences and connected with me as a reader in a way that is somewhat exclusive to me. Someone else who's read the book might have read and enjoyed this work on a more literal level while another maybe picked up on figurative subtexts, but took on an entirely different interpretation from my own. THIS to me is what makes a book engaging. It's also what I think might have been missing from a lot of my reading, at least as of late.

While all four of my books from August were enjoyable and entertaining and creative in their own ways, they were also all very literal and straightforward. There simply wasn't a lot of room for me to make connections, anticipate what would come next, apply moments of the text to my own life, or even really become fully connected with most of the main characters. Unstable Prototypes is a fun scifi adventure that I'm very nearly done with, but it's very familiar to anyone who's had experience with 90's science fiction and most of the characters, while colorful, are also pretty static. Brooding City was a solid paranormal mystery as well, but again, neither the characters nor the world itself had the sort of symbolic depth that I've been craving. The Martian is perhaps the most science heavy science fiction I have ever read and Mark is one of the most splendid characters in literature, but due to it being so focused on being a grounded piece of fiction, I also had no room here to make this story my own. Then there was the Grim Brother's classic fairy tales which do have some underlying messages, but they are much thinner than what you'd find in say a fable or parable. All in all, I just didn't have room to live within the stories that I've read this month. They belonged to other people and while they were all quite good, these stories were just too full for me to put anything of my own into them. It's kind of like getting a coffee, but then the person serving you doesn't leave any room for you to put what you want into it. I love coffee, but I also want to have it with cream and sugar. If I don't have room to put those things in then the coffee just isn't the same for me.

An alternate character that I sometimes mess around with to try a different character class. 
Mainly, I've just been playing through her personal story since I had a free boost to level 20

Does this mean I'm done with reading as a form of entertainment? Absolutely not! I think I'll just try and be more selective in making sure that I have at least one book in my current reads that delivers the level of engagement that I'm looking for. Perhaps I'll also try to alternate a bit more between gaming and reading since I do like games very much and part of the reason I got so hooked  on Guild Wars 2 was that it had been so long since I'd really say down to play a game. Another element is that because Guild Wars 2 is a multiplayer game, I was able to meet up with one of my friends online and share my experience in the game with someone. I've never really been one for book clubs or buddy reads, but I do feel like books are meant to be talked about or at least referred to. I achieve some of this through this blog, but writing about books that really changed the way I think or feel about things is far more rewarding to post about than books that were just good stories.

I do realize that what I'm saying I want out of books is a tall order and I'm not saying I need for every book I ever read to be the most profound piece of fiction I have ever laid eyes on. I think the key for me moving forward will just be to try and strike a balance so that I am allowing time to read things that are more prescriptive alongside books that beg for deeper thought as well as some time to indulge in other forms of entertainment like games and television dramas that I enjoy.

Now that I'm back, it hopefully won't take too long for me to catch up with all of the posts I have to make before diving into a new reading cycle. I'll be making my reading choices a little more carefully, taking on fewer books at a time, and leaving room for other things and hope that I don't get burnt out like I did recently. I'd also like to know how other people feel about this topic. Do you prefer to shut your brain down and just enjoy a story or are you more interested in having an interactive relationship with Fiction?

I'll try to keep the posts coming over the next few days. In the meantime, you can check out some other screenshots of my time in the world of Guild Wars 2:

An episode from my main character's personal story

Nothing like a nice swim after some water combat
Running through the world with a friend as one of my secondary characters 
A sweet shot of mine and my friend's characters in action
Who  me? No I didn't slaughter all of those monsters...

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