A co-worker recently introduced me to an Internet meme that combines the wonkish humor endemic to programmers and their ilk with the high-culture aspirations of literary types such as myself. It’s a supposed lost Nintendo game circa 1990 based on Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. According to the website “it’s an unreleased localization of a Japanese cart called ‘Doki Doki Toshokan: Gatsby no Monogatari.” Of course, those claims are completely bogus. Nintendo never released a Gatsby game here or abroad. But it’s easy to imagine Doki Dok Toshokan as a forgotten treasure recovered from Nintendo’s vault. The graphics are of the two-tone, blocky 8-bit variety, and stylistically everything about it feels like an old-school Nintendo game. The music is so synthetically melodic and completely lacking in tonal subtly that you can almost hear the binary code ticking away behind the scenes. It’s magical in the way that only NES games can be, and once you get accustomed to the awkward interface used to emulate the original Nintendo controller on a keyboard (space bar to jump, the letter Z to shoot), it’s an easy game to master and beat (I completed all four levels in about half an hour during lunch).
The most exciting part of Doki Doki Toshokan, though, doesn’t lie in it’s fealty to the technological limitations of a bygone era; rather, it rises from the way that this absurd concept effortlessly succeeds in reigniting a nostalgic enthusiasm for video games in general. As a child of the 80’s, I spent what must have amounted to an inordinate amount of time gaming. We all did. It was a youth culture centered around and validated by hand-eye coordination – who had it; who didn’t; and how to improve one’s skill. It was understood that hand-eye coordination was akin to some kind of rudimentary intelligence, a necessary building block for so much of what it means to be human. It was a fairly transparent justification for why we spent so much time in front of the television playing games instead of doing homework or chores, but our parents were happy enough to go along, maybe because they, too, had fallen under the seductive spell of the dawn of video games. It was an exciting time.
Those were the halcyon days of a nascent gaming culture that has since matured into a pervasive entertainment industry. One a friend and I were recently discussing over beers (we’ve grown up too). He’d been giving a lot of thought to the topic of games as of late and what they mean in terms of narrative evolution. Narratives. Storylines. That human need to string together scenes and create some kind of linear logic even in something as basic as a test of motor skills has always been present in games: Mario and Bowser repeatedly lock horns over Princess Peach and the fate of the Mushroom Kingdom; Link has his epic quest for the Triforce and the divine rule of sovereignty it imbues on the possessor; even Donkey Kong, the tie-wearing great ape with a penchant for ladders and lattice ironwork, had his inverted Sisyphean gauntlet. But the narratives of gaming’s genesis are as far removed from today’s fully developed stories as an oral tradition is from, say, Gravity’s Rainbow. “At any given point in modern games,” my friend said. “You’re confronted with so many potential interactions that they must be writing novel-length narrative trees just to keep it all straight.” I wouldn’t doubt it.
Video game publishers have always looked to established genres as fertile territory for adaptations. Games like The Goonies II and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles come to mind. Yet, for all their successful adaptations, neither Nintendo, nor it’s stable of official licensees, ever tackled the Modernists – there’s no Ernest Hemingway’s Wild Gunmen of the Spanish Civil War or Virginia Wolf: Dragonslayer. In fact, with a few notable exceptions, the industry has shied away from books, in general. That literary near-exclusivity is precisely what makes Doki Doki Toshokan such a brilliant quantum of culture. The Great Gatsby as a video game succeeds because it’s simultaneously a parody of attempts by Nintendo to articulate fully matured source material using only a limited technological vernacular and because it excites the promise of that technology’s ability to manifest our awakening desire to inhabit those fictional narratives. Who doesn’t want to attend one of Gatsby’s lavish parties, or gaze in awe at Daisy’s monied beauty? More so than literature, perhaps, games provide an easy escape from real life. And we want desperately to escape. Games are proving it every day. Role-playing games like Final Fantasy and Prince of Persia are best sellers as much for their stunning graphics as for the all-consuming fictional worlds they conjure then invite us to enter.
“Think of all the time we now spend on the Internet,” my friend said, “either on our phones or whatever. That’s time we used to spend playing games.” (And, before that, no doubt, reading books.)
It’s a valid point, and I wonder how much of our nostalgia for game systems like the NES is specific to our generation, those of us who knew a world before the Internet, and saw computers as a distraction, a game. Our digital technology is no longer largely a play space. It’s become a partner in our adult lives, something sophisticated enough to support high literature and high art, something that can beat us at chess and that understands the idiosyncrasy of Jeopardy! clues. When we maneuver an 8-bit Nick Carraway around rudimentary scenes inspired by Fitzgerald’s paean to Jazz age opulence, we’re doing more than fending off nefarious waiters and obnoxious flappers with a boomeranging bowler hat, we’re actually fooling around with a childhood friend who taught us about hand-eye coordination before leaving us behind to become a successful surgeon or a concert pianist. You’ll always love the guy, but you’ll also always harbor a measure of envy that keeps you from ever letting him forget about the time he peed his pants in front of the whole school. It was the one time you were unquestionably better than him.