There’s something especially effective about embedding letters into works of fiction. We get to hear directly from a character, a sort-of first-hand source, as opposed to a narrator’s second-hand impression. Moreover, it can give voyeuristic enjoyment; to read what was not written for us (though it was), to peer directly into the life of a character. Telling stories through letters and journals even forms a whole genre of literature, the epistolary, with classics like Stoker’s Dracula being comprised entirely of first-hand documents.
But who writes letters anymore? E-mail, IM and text messaging have taken over our lines of communicae. Some books and movies have modernized, inserting the occasion email or IM conversation. Novels like Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist have even gone the distance, using such documents exclusively. But what about a modern medium to go with the methods? Could a video game employ the same strategy as novelists from centuries prior? Look no further than Bandai’s .Hack (pronounced Dot-Hack).
Online games have for many years provided a realm for sci-fi stories. Typically the plot involves the game becoming ‘all too real’, with characters dying when their avatars do. But .Hack tells the story using the actual medium which these stories play upon. Essentially, it is an offline single-player game which emulates an online multi-player game for the sake of narrative. Like the letter-written sagas of literature before it, .Hack‘s plot is told entirely through e-mails and ‘online’ conversation. The real world is referred to, but is not playable, or even ever shown.
In .Hack, people whose play the (n)online game, known as The World, are stricken by a series of suspicious comas. While the administrators of The World dismiss the comas as the result of cyber-terrorism, the protagonist, ‘Kite’, who was friends with one of the coma victims, begins to investigate for himself. As Kite delves deeper into the mysterious web of the world-wide-web and encounter hackers, cultists, programmers and computer glitches, the game begins (as expected) to become all too real.
One could see this tale as a cautionary one, warning players about the dangers of video game addiction. The ‘comas’ the players fall into are not literal ones, but represent the social isolation and disconnect from reality that people in the throes of game addiction often struggle with. Humorously, given this view, the game series seems to emulate online games in an effort to condemn them. But more likely, the game-induced comas are just a 21st century MacGuffin for a 18th century mode of story-telling.
Eventually Kite meets the original programmer of The World, who despite being dead, lives on within the code of the game. So like Blade Runner or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, .Hack plays with the idea of technologically-induced Gods. The fact the online game is called ‘The World’ is a big enough hint as to how the story-writers wanted the plot interpreted. And appropriately, the villains of the series include hackers and computer bugs, the digital equivalents of Witches and demons.
The .Hack series did go on to have an actually online title, but it was Japan-only. And the main story of the game was still played in an offline mode. Thankfully, playing online did not cause any outbreak of mysterious comas.
So we see how video games can employ the same immersive (and recursive) methods for storytelling that other mediums have employed for half a millennium. Whether you see .Hack’s game-within-a-game as meaningful meta-commentary or just a cute gimmick, you have to at least acknowledge the potential it points toward.