Alice, Harry Potter and the computer game
How often one wishes to learn some magic and to be Peter Pan or Harry Potter or visit Wonderland with Alice! But, then again I often wonder, would their stories remain the same if I stepped into their roles? Would I have acted differently? And, would that have changed the narrative altogether? Then, what if every one of us wanted to 'be' Harry Potter, in his or her own separate way? Then what would happen to the infinity of Harry Potter stories, thus generated? The result we might expect would be chaos. The actual result, however, would be something else: it would be a computer game!
In this paper I would like to propose that the multiple possibilities of narrative action in children's fiction, especially fantasies such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or the Harry Potter stories, bring these stories very close to computer games. I believe that certain sub-genres of children's fiction work with premises similar to the computer game as regards narrative flexibility and other features. A child's dream, as in Alice or in Hojoborolo, can create an unreal world full of constant activity as in computer games. These can be shown as prototypes for computer games or games in the making. I shall therefore take two children from fiction to compare the child in literature with the child in the game: Alice in Through the Looking Glass and Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (also known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone). The chief reason behind the choice is that they are both popular and representative of their respective centuries. The other reason is purely technical: both characters have been represented in eponymous computer games. I am here using the American McGee's Alice and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, both made by Electronic Arts, as examples of such games. Since I haven't as yet played the Harry Potter game, I shall use the Alice game for a first-hand account. I shall however use screenshots and game reviews to comment about both of them.
But first let us see how a computer game actually works. The computer game consists of infinitely branching levels of narrative. The story changes from player to player. In fact, the player is both the author of the story as well as reader. Therefore very often, comparisons have been made with Jorge Luis Borges's short story The Garden of the Forked Paths or with hypertext and interactive fiction.
The game does not follow narrative time: every action in it happens 'now'. Because of the innumerable possibilities involved, the game is distanced from reality. And it often evaluates the player's skill. Let us then build up a workable definition from these clauses: The computer game, then, is an activity taking place on the basis of formally defined rules, containing an evaluation of the efforts of the player and the story of which differs from player to player. When playing a game, the rest of the world is ignored.
The American dramaturgist and computer theorist Brenda Laurel has extended the idea of stories to interact with and take part in in a more theoretical way.  In this proposed system, the computer program must take on the role as author while the game progresses. Any action by the player must lead to the system adapting the fictive world. According to the game designer Chris Crawford, computer games have four basic characteristics (Crawford 1982) :
1. Representation: A game is a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality. (By subjective, Crawford means that a game is not necessarily trying to represent reality.)
2. Interaction: The game acknowledges and reacts to the player. (Unlike a puzzle, which simply lies still.)
3. Conflict: A game presupposes a conflict. This can be either between several players or between the players' goal and whatever prevents the player from reaching that goal.
4. Safety. The player is safe (in a literal sense) from the events in the game. (Gambling presents a special case, where the outcome of the game is designed to have impact in the real world.)
To this fourfold definition, I will add a fifth clause:
5. The construction of narrative: as stated before, every game keeps constructing its own narrative.
We will first look at the inherent game-like structure in both the stories of Alice and Harry Potter. Then we shall consider each of the five defining clauses of the formal computer game and see how applicable they are to the stories of Alice and Harry, and thereby to some types of children's fiction.
Before that, however, we could possibly look at a few other types of literature and see how closely they resemble the computer game. I have concentrated on children's fiction set in fantasy environments and not on 'serious' children's fiction. Children like Oliver Twist or Little Nell are essential part of an emotional and realistic environment. Hence they have no place in the computer game. The real world excludes a large number of choices, which can be made in the fantasy world. As Humpty Dumpty says to Alice, 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean'. You couldn't do that in the real world, could you? As for emotions, I do not think any extant computer game can accommodate what E. M. Forster calls a 'round' character. Instead there is, a rather flat character whose involvement in the plot is not emotional, but rather a matter of exploring a world, solving problems, performing actions, competing against enemies, and above all dealing with objects in a concrete environment. This kind of involvement is much closer to playing a computer game than to living a Victorian novel or a Shakespearean drama.
Certain other types of narration have often been cited as being very close to the game-structure, namely science fiction and the cinema. My argument would be that these do not show an equal degree of interactivity to the game, or for that matter the children's fantasy. I shall elaborate on this later on, when I look at interactivity separately. Most children's fiction, however, shows a game-structure to some extent. Let us see how.
Both Alice and Harry are playing games in their respective stories. Through the Looking Glass can be looked at as a chess game in progress. Lewis Carroll himself comments on the playability of his story: 'As the chess-problem, given on the next page, has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked, so far as the moves are concerned.' [my italics]
This comment makes the game associations of his book even more obvious. In fact, both Alice books are based on games. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland could be seen as a kind of card game, and we have already spoken of Through the Looking Glass. Besides the cards and the chess games, they also contain plenty of mathematical puzzles and word games. Being awfully bad at maths, I would not dare bother you with mathematical problems. Speaking instead of word-games, Humpty Dumpty's analysis of the Jabberwocky poem is a famous example:
Both Humpty and Alice are playing with English words and juggling with them to create new ones. The reading of the Jabberwocky poem is also a game. Alice uses a mirror to read it and finds a poem, which resembles English. But there could be plenty of other ways to look at it. There could also be an utter failure to make anything out of it. Other than these the books are replete with all sorts of games: there is croquet, a caucus-race and a mock-chivalric joust.
Like the many games in the Alice books, Quidditch in Harry Potter seems to contain many games in one, perhaps a combination of hang-gliding, hockey, and bungee jumping. And Harry loves quidditch; there are over three games of quidditch played in the first book alone. As in Through the Looking Glass here too there are games of chess, called wizard chess, being played. Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley is a past master of this game. In the Harry Potter stories, games actually play a major part in problem-solving. In the first book, two of the spells guarding the philosopher's stone involve game playing. Harry has to play one of his best games of quidditch to gain the key to the door. The door itself opens to reveal another game: this time, a huge set of wizard chess where the huge pieces actually destroy themselves. To cross the floor they have to checkmate the white king and conquer the white army, which guards the passage. ''It's obvious, isn't it?" says Ron. "We've got to play our way across the room."
Like all games, the games played in these books have their objectives. It might be to cross a passage as in the last example, or to go to a new place as in Through the Looking Glass, or simply to win house points for Gryffindor as in Harry's quidditch matches. Similarly, the story as a whole has its objective: to destroy Voldemort's evil plans in Harry Potter and for Alice, to become a queen or simply to go home.
Now it would be instructive to compare this with the computer game per se. This too has its objective: victory or the maximum points scored. If the game evaluates the player, Harry Potter in the story is also being constantly evaluated and keeps gaining or losing house-points. The formal set of rules that form the base of the computer game can be compared to the basic conventions of the fictional narrative. We said earlier that while playing a game the rest of the world is ignored. This is evident both in Alice and in Harry Potter. The definition we prepared for the computer game is therefore equally true of these books. What remains now is to consider the five clauses which were used to evaluate the effectiveness of the computer game, namely: representation, interactivity, narrative construction, conflict and safety.
About the representation of a subset of reality, I do not have much to say. The Harry Potter story has a quasi-real environment, which is a 'not-so-well-known part of England'. But it is there and even has its own ministry - the ministry of magic. The same goes for Alice.
Interactivity of games and narratives has long been a controversial topic. Questions of how interactive a game or a book can be are matters of dispute. But that the computer game, at least, is to some extent interactive has been accepted. Once I start a game, I can control the fate of my narrative. I keep interacting with a set of rules and thereby make my own changes and augmentations to a narrative existing only in its shell, as in the base narrative told at the beginning of games like American McGee's Alice and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. This interactivity is not present in normal forms of fiction where there is no possibility of intruding into the plot. Nor would it be possible in the movie or in science fiction as much as in children's fiction like Harry Potter that involves fantasy and a game-structure as shown earlier. For example Harry Potter has to work out a riddle for reaching the philosopher's stone. He has to discover a hidden set of rules by which he changes his story in his favour.
In other forms of narrative, barring some forms of science fiction , the possibilities of change are far the lesser. Not so in the Harry Potter stories. Hogwarts literally keeps changing itself. The staircases keep moving and changing places. Doors pretend to be walls. Paintings move from canvas to canvas. On top of everything, there is Peeves the poltergeist to confuse you. Similarly, in Wonderland Alice finds no help in the Cheshire cat when she asks for directions:
But there are always plenty of possibilities present: if the staircase had not confused him, Harry would never have discovered the secret door guarded by the three-headed dog. The story could then have been entirely different. Had Alice not played the chess-game the way she did the story could have taken a different turn. She could either have won the game in more than the eleven moves, which make up her story or she could have lost all her pieces. It is just that both Harry Potter and Alice have used the numerous choices available to construct their stories as we read them now. The errant staircase could have behaved itself in the Philosopher's Stone and Alice could have proved a less competent chess-player. For that matter, so could Ron Weasley. God knows what would have happened then.
I can, however, give you one alternative. For this I must tell you a story:
The White Rabbit popped up every now and then and told me, 'Don't dawdle Alice. We must be on our way'. And guess who was my guide! it was the Cheshire cat. And as can be expected, it ditched me whenever I needed advice and vanished into thin air. Suddenly two chessmen attacked me: the knight charged and the castle blocked my way. Luckily, I found the vorpal sword in time and killed them both. Now was the time to set out and kill the Jabberwocky. But I believe, I had been a trifle careless and a red pawn cut my head off with an axe. And before I had fully realized what had happened I heard, as I had heard so many times, the Hatter's insane laugh and once again the game was over.
This, though I am a rather bad storyteller, is not entirely my own concoction. Yet in a way, it is. This was just one outcome of my playing the game called the American McGee's Alice, which I have already introduced. The basic plot might belong to the game but the choices which take it further are mine. And even if I might not have realized it, I was constructing an entirely new narrative while playing. Let us now discuss the other chief clause that we have spoken of: the construction of the narrative.
In the process let me introduce the basic story of the two computer games, for those of us who are not already familiar with them. For this purpose I shall use game reviews published in popular gaming magazines or web sites. TechTV, a computer game-oriented web site comments:
I've already spoken about the Alice game, but the Electronic Arts Review would perhaps be of some more help: When Alice answers a distressed summons to return to Wonderland, she
In this game, of course, one finds the basic plot of the Alice stories given a different twist. As far as I have been able to play it, all the characters from the book are there, but the hints of evilness in the Queen of Hearts and the madness of the Hatter and the March Hare have been given a diabolic twist. For regular gamers this game is scarcely different from the 3-d shooting games (first-person-shooters) like Doom or Quake.
Both games involve constant action. The action is dependent on the player's choice. If the player's interpretation of the situation differs then he makes different choices. These choices determine what puzzle he must solve and in what time sequence. Together with that there is the constant risk of failure. As in my case, where the white pawn attacks me from behind. There is also the chance of getting lost in the game world if one strays onto the wrong path. This is again reminiscent of Borges's The Garden of Forked Paths. Borges makes his character, the famous sinologist Stephen Albert say, 'time forks perpetually towards innumerable futures'. The narrative in the game too, forks towards innumerable futures. In this sense the game has also been compared to the hypertext.
The hypertext theorist David Bolter claims that when Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish argue that the reader constitutes the text in the act of reading, they are describing hypertext. If that is so, then the reader-response theory can also be applied to the computer game. Of course, the reader-response theory itself has several positions within it, so this might prove difficult. We could possibly apply Fish's theory, that the reader creates the entire text, to the computer game. Instead of 'creates' perhaps one should say 'recreates' because the game is not completely free of the base narrative. This would then bring us to a question of control over the narrative.
Game design theory talks of controlled access vis-à-vis random access. Controlled access refers to the series of choices which govern the game, and random access to the element of uncertainty plus the base plot of the game. it is only with a balance of the two that a narrative can be properly constructed. I would argue that even in the books, Alice and Harry try to maintain this balance as they play along their respective game patterns and construct their stories. Let us take an example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Harry has suddenly been moved from the human world to the wizarding world by the giant Hagrid. This is an instance of random access. Whoever knew that the boy from Privet Drive had magical powers! That he has to go to Hogwarts and join the sorting ceremony is compulsory. Such events in the book correspond to the basic rules of the game. But when he puts on the sorting hat a different thing happens. He makes a desperate mental effort to exercise his choice not to join the Slytherins. This is controlled access. Harry Potter has made a controlled choice. Therefore even in narrative construction, the book has some similarities with the games.
The next things to consider would be the penultimate and ultimate clauses of our comparison: conflict and safety. Without conflict there cannot be any fun in achieving your objective. And fun is essential to any game. It is the reason why we play. This is one area where both the Harry Potter books and the game are the most similar. In both of these there is the major conflict with Voldemort and certain minor conflicts between Draco Malfoy and Harry, or with the ever-wrathful Snape.
In the American McGee's Alice game, the conflict is simple: almost every creature in the diabolic Wonderland is an enemy. The conflict in the Alice books, however, is more difficult to define. Robert Polhemus in his essay Play, Nonsense, Games: Comic Diversion has this to say about the nonsense in Carroll:
Safety in a computer game implies both the players literal safety from the violence in the game and the apparent distance from the rest of the world while playing. In the literal sense, we must admit, neither Alice nor Harry are safe from the action in their stories. In fact, Harry comes out of it badly injured after his encounter with Voldemort. But as far as the distance from the outside world is concerned, we must remember that when Harry fights Quirrell, he is completely alone. As for Alice, she is in a strange world of dreams and the outside world is far away as long as she is asleep.
We have seen the intrinsic similarities of these two books with their counterparts in computer games and with the structure of computer games, in general. Analysed in terms of the defining clauses of such games, these books reveal many similarities. Many of the clauses have been as easily applied to these books as to games. Like the player of the computer games, both Harry and Alice create and simultaneously read their own stories. The story as we currently have it in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and in Through the Looking Glass can then be seen as one played game among the infinite playable games possible. Among the latter, even my own abortive Alice game finds its place.
Here I would like to point out that some children's books capitalized on their game-like narrative flexibility long before video games were conceived of. At a recent seminar on the History of the Book, Dr. Alexis Tadie drew attention to a parallel story narrated in the marginalia of a British soldier's copy of Kim . The fact that the story of Kim can be read also as a Tommy's life-story is intriguing, indeed. In effect, then, perhaps the soldier who possessed that copy of Kim was playing 'the Great Game' mentioned in the novel, in his own way.
Thus we can see how certain types of children's fiction can be looked at as proto-computer games. And though unlike computer games in that they tell just one story at a time, they are similar because they contain numerous other potential narratives. I would like to conclude by saying that the child in the book looks forward to the child in the game and thereby to an ideal inexhaustible narrative.
Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass. [available online]
J K Rowling. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (also known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)
Rudyard Kipling. Kim [available online]
Jorge Luis Borges. The Garden of Forked Paths
Sukumar Ray. Hojoborolo (English trans. by Dr. Sukanta Chaudhuri)
TechTV. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone review
EA (Electronic Arts). American McGee's Alice review
Nintendo. GameBoy review of American McGee's Alice
Blake, Kathleen: Play, Sport and Games
Brooks, Peter: Reading for the Plot. Knopf, New York, 1984. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University
Bush, Vannevar: As we may think. 1945. [Project Gutenberg]
Crawford, Chris: The Art of Computer Game Design. 1982, electronic version
Fish, Stanley: Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Role of the Reader
Juuls, Jesper. Games telling stories. (jesper juul: text)
King, Geoff. Narrative and Spectacle: Video games and Hollywood
Landow, George P.: Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology 1992.
Laurel, Brenda (ed.): The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990
Lesnie-Oberstein, Karin. Fantasy, Childhood and Literature: in pursuit of wonderlands
McGann, Jerome. The Rationale of the Hypertext [available online]
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Polhemus, Robert. Play, Nonsense, and Games: Comic Diversion.
1 Brenda Laurel (ed.): The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990 pp.135-42
2 Chris Crawford: The Art of Computer Game Design. 1982, electronic version
3 The concept of Time travel is especially worth mentioning in this context. The classic example , of course, is H.G.Wells's The Time Machine
4 Johan Huizinga mentions the Halsrätsel (roughly translated as 'neck-riddle') as a form of the rather dangerous medieval 'game'. I believe a comparison with the Halsrätsel and the Queen of Hearts' frequent "Off with her head" would be instructive in this context.
5 Dr. Alexis Tadie of the University of Paris mentions this in his paper at the Book History Seminar, Jadavpur University, Calcutta.
© Souvik Mukherjee, June 2002