Another note on the Southern Reach trilogy — or something that started as a note but then turned into a critique.

A couple of years ago I wrote that the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit was marred by “videogame aesthetics.” Remember the dwarves running across the bridges in the goblin caves? Classic side-scroller! It’s Super Thorin Brothers! [UPDATE: As Adam Roberts points out, this should surely be Super Moria Brothers.] But “all I could to was watch the dwarves bounce around from horror to horror. My hands felt empty and useless without the controller they so obviously needed. Video-game aesthetics are built around the assumption of manual activity: they work far better when you have something to do. I didn’t really want to sit passively and watch Peter Jackson play with his Xbox but that’s what I felt was happening to me for much of the second half of the movie.”

The narrative technique of the Southern Reach trilogy — especially in the first book — is likewise derived from videogames, though not side-scrollers: instead, first-person explorers are the model, especially (it seems to me) Myst and Riven. The explorations of Area X in Annihilation very strongly reminded me of my explorations of Myst Island, with, added-on, some of the interactive elements that emerged in Riven. (Myst and Riven could be said to have elements of “strange pastoral” also.)

The biologist walks through the forest to the lighthouse — hey, there’s a ruined village off to the side. Can you interact with anything there? Not really; keep going. The lighthouse is scary but unrewarding until you click on the rug and find the trap door! And then the return trip: can you find the path that lets you escape the moaning creature? If not, maybe you die, and the game restarts back at base camp?

And then in the second book: Explore the official Southern Reach facility! Walk through the spooky room with the gloves; see what’s behind the locked door in your office — and search until you find the key that opens the one locked drawer in your desk. Then, if you’re really clever, find the trap door — yes, another trap door, but this one in the ceiling of the storage closet! Some of this reminds me of the old text-based adventures games also: type “open the drawer” and you get “Opening the drawer reveals a strange plant, a dead mouse, and an old cellphone.”

Now, I don’t want to get carried away with this: text-based adventure games are a kind of interactive fiction, and interactive fiction draws on the narrative types and tropes of the novel. But there are certain kinds of actions you perform in those games, certain kinds of objects you interact with, that then make their way into videogames — and action and objects of those general kinds are what populate the Southern Reach saga.

So the story can feel at times like interactive fiction without the interaction; a point which leads me to another, one that might explain my own lack of excitement about the novel, despite its various excellences. Because so much of it seems to be translated from another medium, one perhaps better suited to the shape of the story, the Southern Reach story as a whole feels to me less like a novel than a novelization — in light of which it’s interesting to note the work VanderMeer has done in other media, including games and film.

I’m not happy about what seems to me the increasing influence of videogames on film and fiction — not because I dislike videogames, but because not every artistic medium does everything equally well. Maybe we should let videogames do what they do best; and when we make movies or write novels, we could do worse than think about what those media can do that videogames can’t.

UPDATE: corrections from Jeff VanderMeer:

I understand what VanderMeer is saying: that the books’ descriptions of the natural world are based on his own love of an care for that world, based on “actual exploring.” And I have no doubt that that’s true! But I don’t think that his explanation is in any way inconsistent with my thesis that the narrative technique of the novel is indebted to the first-person explorer videogame.


  1. I’ve puzzled over this post for a few days by now. Your assessment seems to be entirely accurate, but my reaction is a little dull: what did you (or anyone else) expect? This isn’t quite the stuff of “we create our tools, then our tools create us,” but it’s not far removed. Our preoccupations transform our thinking according to their own internal dynamics. This is no less true in narrative than in racehorse politics, xenophobic fear-mongering (giving rise to a paranoid security state), or even competing scientific and spiritual worldviews. Most lightweight content creators and critics greet new storytelling techniques and idiom with relish. I’m more like you (I think) in believing that many modern refinements amount to inadequate story development. In short, preoccupation with the tools has overtaken the message or need to have one.

  2. Honestly, Freddie, I don't know. It may end up being a casualty of my attempt at life simplification; or I may just be on hiatus. I probably won't be posting here in the near future, that's about all I can say with any confidence.

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