It’s not a reach to say that video games, especially the ones with massive, multimillion-dollar production budgets that have dominated the past twenty-five years, borrow much from the literary tradition. Even beyond superficial questions of plot and narrative, games, like novels, use character to situate players in their worlds. These characters can be familiar, iconic—Mario or Master Chief—or something more immersive, as in the tradition of building your own characters in RPS, stretching from Skyrim back to tabletop Dungeons and Dragons. Even the words we use to conceptualize being these characters, the games’ “perspectives,” might as well be lifted from a craft essay on the art of fiction: You aim down the sights of a rifle in a first-person shooter; manipulate the “camera” around obstacles in a third-person platformer; and go “god mode,” omniscient, directing troops on the battlefield of a strategy game.

Creative writing classes teach that, no matter the plot, no matter the point of the plot, character is essential in making readers care, in elevating merely relaying a story into the otherwise impossible-to-define, amorphous art of fiction. And that’s an important distinction to make. Games use narrative to get players interested and character to keep them invested, but they’re working on another level, a higher level, too. Character and plot, graphics and music, even gameplay mechanics and the processing power working under the hood to keep the software running—all of these layers upon layers of systems, taken in the aggregate, work to turn mere animations on a screen into a living world.

There’s an essay in the recent Graywolf Press anthology, Critical Hits: Writers Playing Video Games, by the novelist and short story writer Jamil Jan Kochai called “Cathartic Warfare.” In the essay, Kochai writes about his experience, as a teenaged son of Afghan immigrants, with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and its sequel, both set in a thinly- or not-at-all-veiled version of the US “war on terror.” Kochai writes:

In first person, I—the gamer, the soldier, the American—stand over the virtual corpse I have just slaughtered. With his dark complexion, little black beard, and fallen machine gun, the digital corpse is supposed to resemble an Afghan insurgent. . . . The corpse does not fade from the field of play, and in his face I’m forced to acknowledge what I have denied up to this point in my playthrough: that the enemy I have killed is me.

Using the ugly, adolescent violence of Call of Duty as a starting point, Kochai spends the essay sitting uneasily with how mid-aughts culture, especially that of video games, had been coopted by the hawkish cultural climate. “In a war film,” Kochai writes, “at least it is Mark Wahlberg or Jeremy Renner or some other famous white actor who is slaughtering all of these Afghans, these Muslims.” He ends the essay on the realization that it’s the same boys he grew up playing Call of Duty with that ended up, as adults, enlisting in the military, spending the 2010s in Afghanistan and other overseas war zones, their “fantasies turned to flesh.”

Contrast that essay, then, with “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” a short story Kochai published in The New Yorker in 2019. In it, the second-person narrator is a teenaged son of Afghan political refugees and a self-proclaimed superfan of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear games, “scrimping and saving . . . like literal dimes you’re picking up off the street” to pay his older cousin for a copy of the series’ final entry. Throwing himself into the game, in part to escape his unhappy home life, the narrator becomes totally immersed in its open world of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, where Russians, mujahideen, and private military contractors target each other in covert ops across the rocky cliffs and dirt roads of Northern Kabul province. The racialized violence of the game isn’t lost on the narrator, but he rationalizes it in the name of the art:

the fact that nineteen-eighties Afghanistan is the final setting of the most legendary and artistically significant gaming franchise in the history of time made you all the more excited to get your hands on it, especially since you’ve been shooting at Afghans in your games (Call of Duty and Battlefield and Splinter Cell) for so long that you’ve become oddly immune to the self-loathing you felt when you were first massacring wave after wave of militant fighters who looked just like your father.

It’s that same reckoning with the narrator’s father, via the game world, that drives the story to its climax. One night, playing the game (high on probably-moldy kush) the narrator scopes out an enemy compound and finds, instead of copy-and-pasted NPC [non-player character] prisoners, twenty-year-old versions of his father and (now dead) uncle, tied up by the Soviets, awaiting execution. It’s then that the game calls out to the narrator by name—“’Zoya?’ [your father] is saying, very gently, the way he used to say it when you were a kid”—and the mission that had, before, existed as means to escape the monotony of suburban existence becomes a way for the narrator to reconnect with a tumultuous family history and reclaim his past. Invading the enemy compound, the narrator describes:

[running] with your father on one shoulder and your uncle on the other, and with the lights of the Soviet gunfire dying away at the outer edges of your vision, you trudge deeper into the darkness of the cave . . . and it is as if the figures in the image were journeying inside you, delving into your flesh.

If that ending image seems familiar, that’s because it is. Except for a few differing biographical details, “Cathartic Warfare” retreads the same ideas as “Playing Metal Gear Solid V” in memoir form. The essay veers into criticism and centers a less nuanced, more “hoo-rah” depiction of virtual war than the Metal Gear games, but the point is ultimately the same. But in the transition, something is lost. It’s like Kochai is opening up his bag of tricks for the readers, telling them what to take away from his writing instead of, as in “Playing Metal Gear Solid V,” trusting that the fictionalized, framed version of the story will work even better.

“Cathartic Warfare” quotes Frantz Fanon and questions the branching life paths of childhood friends, while “Playing Metal Gear Solid V” is all style—a fluid second-person voice blending humor, fanboy culture, and the existential horror of seeing (or not seeing) yourself in the art you love. It’s mining the uncanny sensation of playing as someone else in a video game, especially as someone different than you, not merely as the “point” of an essay but as the formal conceit of the story itself. While, like most good fiction, everything in the story is filtered through the lens of its main character, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V” achieves the complexity that “Cathartic Warfare,” with its clearly articulated “so what?”, lacks. It’s the blending of gaming and (loosely autobiographical) fiction, not just in content but in the language of the sensation that gaming creates, of reading or playing or being, or something else entirely, something in between.  And, in the process, it shows how nonfiction, specifically the memoir, might fail to address the uniquely digital, twenty-first century sensation of experiencing somebody else’s world.


What is hybridity, really, but borrowing from the style of a work that you admire, and resituating it in a new, hopefully illuminating, context?  You can write an essay about an album you love, or adapt a great novel into a movie, but some of the magic is always, necessarily, lost in the translation from form to form. If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then hybrid art forms are the work of superfans, well-versed enough in two different mediums to give blending them an honest shot, hoping to discover something new about both in the process.  

It’s frustrating, reading through the essays that make up Critical Hits, that most of them fall into the same well-written yet ultimately formally uninteresting trap. Edited by writers-slash-gamers J. Robert Lennon and Carmen Maria Machado with contributions from talented writers both inside and outside the Graywolf family, most of Critical Hits can be boiled down as follows: a real-life crisis (often pandemic-era lockdowns) causes the writer to throw themself into a new or old favorite game as a means of escape, and, in the process, something about the game’s story or mechanics sparks a new way of thinking. Lennon (who has actually spoken several times about how puzzle box games like The Witness have inspired his own fiction writing) dutifully connects homesteading in Fallout 76’s Appalachia with his family’s history in the area. Elissa Washuta parallels surviving The Last of Us’s fungal apocalypse with her own chronic illness. And Ander Monson maps his rocky adolescence onto the story of the forgotten Atari Jaguar console. The essays jump between memoir and cultural criticism with insight and humor, but formally, there’s no reason that essays just like these, hitting the same reflective beats and ending with the same big ideas, couldn’t be written about novels or films or music instead.

The contemporary memoir, just like movies and the recorded album, is a form decidedly grounded in tweniethcentury notions of emphasizing the artist’s lived experience and aesthetic preference above all else. It’s art you experience with your senses rather than interface with on your own terms. A one-way exchange, rather than something like a video game, where a player is dropped into a virtual world (designed by artists, usually with programmed “rules”) and is free to engage with it as they see fit.  Playing a video game, even an “arty” one, is an experience more akin to building a jigsaw puzzle than reading a novel. And a personal essay about working on that puzzle—a writer asserting their experience—will never be able to fully capture the experience of having finished one yourself.

The readerly conceit necessary for any sort of narrative—fiction or nonfiction, as small as a joke or as big as an epic—is interiority. The idea that, with an interesting enough story and pretty enough language, readers will come to know and care about the interior life of someone else. Character, plot, tone, style—all these so-called “tenets” of storytelling really only take on meaning when filtered through the infinitely-iterative prism of a character’s (or, in memoir, the writer’s) interiority. It’s how sentences that are otherwise simple statements of action, observations, and quoted dialogue actually come together to mean something. An apple falling from a tree doesn’t necessarily mean anything in and of itself. Unless, of course, to someone, somewhere, it does.

But video games are different. Like film, games have to imply what a novelist can simply write using visual and audio clues—blocking, dialogue, mise-en-scene. But unlike film, where the closed system of the screen’s edges functions like the covers holding together the pages of a book—what’s in is in, what’s out is out, what you see is what you get—the formal magic of a video game is what’s happening outside of your character, outside the narrative, outside the frame. Not interiority, like in a novel, but exteriority, the idea that there’s an entire world outside of the player. And all you need to do is swing the camera around and look.

With few exceptions, the games written about in Critical Hits are engaged with as little more than interactive movies, where plots are augmented by the illusion of choice and rarely impact their players on levels beyond the merely narrative. On the one hand, this might just be an issue of chosen form. Nonfiction, especially memoir, relies on the assumption that, as long as the writing is honest enough, both the self and the truth are inherently knowable. The personal essay as a form is all about interiority, honesty, and reflection in service of “the point.” In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of what games, with their layered worlds, breadth of content that many players will never see, and emphasis on the gameplay experience over any outcomes, formally brings to the table. It begs the question of what, exactly, the point of an anthology like Critical Hits really is. Without the critical or historical rigor to really dive into the games in question as pieces of art, nor fiction’s ability to experiment and play with subjectivity, most of the essays come off feeling flat, missing the magic that draws people to gaming in the first place.


Yet while adaptations of gaming’s form into the literary space are infrequent enough to be considered on a case-by-case basis, “literary” games have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Ranging in scale from tiny projects by one-man development teams to titles with million-dollar production budgets, video games seem much more eager than the literary establishment to borrow and learn from other forms. And among the most interesting of these are the ones which dive head-on into what, from a craft perspective, is supposed to be the domain of written fiction—their protagonists’ interior lives.

Take Celeste, the 8bit era-inspired platformer from 2018 that, despite its relatively simple mechanics, got a lot of buzz at its release for blending its punishing difficulty (with generous respawn points) with a narrative arc following the main character literally climbing a mountain as a way of reckoning with chronic anxiety and depression. Or 2017’s Hellblade: Sesuna’s Sacrifice, which used the conceit of an action-horror game to explore its main characters’ struggle with grief and psychosis. Or even 2010’s Alan Wake and its 2023 sequel, metafictional dives into the damaged psyche of their titular main character, a Stephen King-like horror novelist. All these games, even at their cheesiest, approach gaming less as a power fantasy or a means of immersion than, like a good novel, the sensation of being (if such a thing is ever possible) another person, especially someone damaged.

Primarily set in a late-Renaissance monastery and scriptorium, Pentiment, the 2022 adventure game from beloved studio Obsidian Entertainment, might just be the most “literary” video game ever made. The player controls Andreas, an urban-born journeyman of painting, as he moves into the monastery to work on his masterpiece and gets mixed up in a murder mystery that draws equally on history, theology, Renaissance poetry, and classic PC games like The Secret of Monkey Island. For one, the entire game’s art style evokes the thick-lined boxiness of wood-cut illustrations in illuminated manuscripts, and the newly-invented printing-press looms large as both a symbol of and an actual threat to the old order of the game’s tiny Bavarian village.

There’s also a recurring dream sequence where Andreas awakens in a medieval court and debates philosophy, seminar-style, with ancient and fictional scholars alike—Prester John, Saint Groban, Socrates, and Beatrice from The Divine Comedy—as a sort of soul-searching. While the player controlling Andreas has a degree of agency throughout the early sections of the game’s narrative (choosing specifics of Andreas’s backstory, picking dialogue options, even which suspect you want to accuse of the crime), as the game progresses, it’s clear he’s not the blank-slate protagonist that fans of RPGs and adventure games are familiar with. Rather Andreas, regardless of “how” the player plays him, is always a tormented soul—the few constants of each playthrough being his unhappy home and professional lives, as well as how the tumultuous politics of his era complicate things further. The philosopher’s forum dream sequences, then, function as a sort of mirror with which the player can analyze, rather than inhabit, the person they’ve been playing as. They’re a motley crew of perspectives and voices and, taken as a whole, they function to show that each of their personalities is a part of Andreas, a man who the player comes to realize has no definitive sense of self. This Greek chorus of personified philosophies (which each would have been encountered by Andreas through the same hand-written manuscripts the game is so interested in) pipes in with bits of judgement or encouragement as Andreas’s doomed murder investigation progresses. As a player, you can steer Andreas, his past, and his reactions in several different directions, but the fragmented voices in his head are inescapable, always jumping in with a judgment or self-doubt. And, without spoilers, that’s largely the “point” of Pentiment—that presuming oneself as big and important enough to change the world, for good or for bad, is foolish. That history is inescapable, and all humanity can do is try our best to survive and write everything down.

While dozens if not hundreds of games have dealt with the question of playing a character who has an interior life, no title has done so with as much style and heart (and while avoiding the dream sequence cliché) as Disco Elysium. Released in 2019 by British developer ZA/UM with a million-word-long script by Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium is probably the only video game to not just include grappling with its protagonists’ interiority as a feature, but as what the game, as a whole, is about. Set in the Soviet-inspired fantasy world of Revachol, players control an (amnesiac) alcoholic detective sent to investigate a grisly murder case. Most of Disco Elysium plays with mechanics that would be familiar to fans of RPGs and the detective genre as a whole—you investigate crime scenes, note clues, interrogate suspects, and try to piece together what happened. There are twists and turns to the story, of course, and some interesting political subtext, but the most interesting part of what Disco Elysium offers is how its main plot is paralleled by your character remembering, in an ongoing dialogue with his damaged self, who he is.

Formally, the game blends RPG mechanics with the conventions of existential fiction. Instead of party members to wrangle and violent skills to level up, Disco Elysium has a chorus of personality traits, skills, and supernatural sixth senses that, in the aggregate, come together to make your character. “Encyclopedia” represents the tendency for trivial facts to pop into your mind, “Drama” is how well you act and lie, “Empathy” is what it sounds like, and “Inland Empire” is the unquantifiable way you can derive meaning from inanimate objects. Each of these twenty-four skills function not only as things to get better at in service of advancing the plot, but also as voices in and of themselves which, as in Pentiment, chime in throughout the narrative—reacting to, helping, and sometimes even undermining the investigation you’re supposed to be solving. While minimizing giving any specifics away in fear of spoiling the game’s magic, it’s these voices—the splintered and often-neglected interior life of a damaged man—that Disco Elysium, with all its genre-inflections and thinly-veiled Marxist allegories, is about. The various voices’ constant presence, even when you don’t want them there, is both a narrative and mechanical conceit that by the time the game’s story is over, the self-actualization that you and the character (separate beings) experience is among the most uniquely impactful moments in all of gaming.

It makes sense that of all the essays in Critical Hits, the one that messes the most with form and, in the end, is the most successful is Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “This Kind of Animal,” in which he borrows Disco Elysium’s fragmented interiority—both its language and the gamified assumption that you can get better—for grappling with his father’s death. “When living in [Disco Elysium],” Adjei-Brenyah writes, “I found a new framework to consider my thoughts. And it was a reminder of just how much each of us contend with all the time . . . How many skill checks are the people around me failing at any given moment? How do I respond when they do?”  

“I felt like a Chameleon to his Charizard,” Adjei-Brenyah opens the essay, remembering the huge presence his father was in during his childhood—the good, the bad, and the ugly alike. Years later, as an adult, Adjei-Brenyah and his sisters organize the funeral arrangements for their father’s body. His mind flickers back to a scene in the beginning of Disco Elysium that eerily echoes his present: “When you are staring at a body, the dead and bloated and glorious body hanging from a tree. When you look close enough at that body, it tells you a story.” And then, in an unmarked formal transition that’s equal parts abrupt and calibrated, Adjei-Brenyah’s voice, at least the version of it “fluent” in the conventions of the personal essay, gives out, unable to handle the flood of loud and contradictory emotions that hit him when looking at his father’s body. The end of the essay slides into the language of Disco Elysium’s multiple narrators, using the simulated interiority of the game’s fictional world to make sense, however fragmented, of Adjei-Brenyah’s own. He writes:

You step to the body.

Morale: -1 Endurance: -1

It hurts to look at him, but you must. It hurts like the actual burning you felt in your chest at three in the morning when they called you . . . Crying, because this is it, this is the last time you’ll see the man you’ve looked at most.

Morale: -1 (this is really hard)

It’s going to be okay. I got it, Dad. Mom and sister A and sister B will all be okay.”

Drama: Hopefully…

You look at him. He lived so much in a suit and there he is again. It seems wrong to wear a tie forever, but he would have liked the look.

Visual Calculus: This is hardly the same person, and of course it is. . . .

You’re crying like you’ve just discovered tears and they are your new favorite thing . . .

You look at your sisters weeping, your mother dry-eyed.

Empathy: “You couldn’t have been different. You were all you knew.”

Suggestion: “You could have been anything. There are so many things to be.”

Logic: ”What you are is what you are.” . . .

To his body, as a way to speak with him, you say “I love you and wish you were here.”

Inland Empire: I love you and where I am now, love is all that’s left.

“This Kind of Animal” breaks the “rules” of memoir but, by letting the language of one form fill in when another fails, uniquely gets at the experience of inhabiting someone in a digital world. More than any of the other essays in Critical Hits, it is embracing a new, hybrid form to engage with the not-quite interiority of games like Disco Elysium on its own terms.Gaming, still in its infancy, offers an experience at the world level rather than personal level, opening possibilities for exploring subjectivities beyond the limitations of the individual. Adjei-Brenyah and all of the writers featured in Critical Hits are grappling with this in their work in real-time—what might just be not only a new method of storytelling, but a new way of conceptualizing ourselves in the world. Though, as the flaws of Critical Hits make clear, many of them are still searching for the vocabulary.

Martin Dolan is a writer based out of upstate NY. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Baffler, and more. He’s online at

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