Choice, Agency, and Endings: Videogames and the 20th Century LGBT Novel (Part II Dissertation)


The final year of my undergraduate degree offered me the opportunity to further guide my education towards my own interests. I increasingly knew I wanted to talk and think about videogames, and it was a large part of my motivation to take the Visual Culture paper (as well as transferring some of the skills I’d developed in close reading and literary analysis onto other media). But I also knew that, at best, I’d only be able to talk about them in one of three questions in the exams. My only other feasible options were either the Tragedy paper or the Part II dissertation. The Part II dissertation would count as a fifth of my final year result (ultimately determining my class mark), and staking it in an effort to talk about videogames within the Cambridge English Tripos was not going to be playing it safe.

While photography, film, and the ‘visual arts’ more broadly find their way into many of the papers offered within the Tripos, games were less fortunate — getting, at best, a mention in an occasional lecture or class. Granted, digital games are a newer medium, but I nonetheless becoming more and more aware of some of the great work people were doing in the industry — award-winning work in writing and narrative direction which, to me at least, seemed perfect material for literary criticism. While I was finally able to discuss them in Visual Culture, I was still picky: considering games as a ‘visual medium’ only does justice to one of their many facets, sidestepping, I felt, a consideration of them as a legitimate, effective medium of storytelling. In this regard, my interests weren’t so much in the ‘literature’ of videogames (although there is certainly some good writing to be found), rather in the narrative structures of games. My Part II dissertation still seemed to be my best bet at making some of these considerations, so all I needed now was a supervisor.

I remembered back to one of my favourite lectures from my second year: a lecture on the digital humanities titled ‘TL; DR: The Survival of the Literary in the Digital Age’ by Dr Jenny Bavidge. I half-expected a somewhat dismal tone to the lecture, about the ‘death’ of the literary or of the novel. Instead, I heard her speaking about a range of new and exciting mediums writers were taking to — talking about the potential of ‘the non-hierarchical nature of online textuality’. And, to my delight, she spoke about videogames. I was both stunned and inspired to find a lecturer within the Cambridge English Faculty using the v-word. And I felt invigorated, finally; excited about the future for the first time in years. It was as though there was this gleaming ray of hope amidst all my doubts about the future of the literary in the modern world. I spoke to her some more after the lecture, and a year later when my Director of Studies needed help finding me a supervisor, I knew exactly who to ask for.

Having her as my supervisor was a privilege. I felt like I could finally be myself, talking and thinking about the things which interested me most with someone as receptive, well-read, and intelligent as she was. She told me at the start that she didn’t personally consider herself an expert on games, to which I said that, ultimately, what mattered to me most was someone who was open-minded and supportive. I knew that, without this, I would have struggled to work on something that would almost inevitably get penalized for its subject matter. We did a lot of thinking and planning, and while it took awhile to get a sense of what the dissertation was really about I think we eventually isolated it: choice, agency, and endings.

I decided earlier on that I wanted to connect videogames with a more specific interest: the LGBT literature I’d been reading in my spare time over the last year (with Giovanni’s Room proving to be one of my favourite pieces of literature). From as early as my first year, one of my favourite thematic interests in literature was in freewill and determinism, and I found that so many of the narratives I adored had an almost extreme sense of fatalism. In planning and in writing, I eventually navigated the subjects of choice, impossible or unrealised endings, the subject of agency in narratives (and in narratives of identity formation in particular). While I wanted to talk about a wider range of games, my supervisor and I both knew I’d need to make sure there was some solid close reading and analysis if I was to win over any examiners. I decided, for the most part, to focus on two novels and two videogames, all while attempting to adhere to the rubric of a 2/3 weighting in favour of written texts. And I decided, ultimately, to focus more on the narrative structure of games rather than writing per se. While there’s some really good writing in some of the games I wrote about (Life is Strange, most notably), it didn’t feel right to try pitting the language of videogames against the language of novels. I wanted, as best as I could, to find a way of analysing both mediums in a way that was mutually incisive.

In short, this project was incredibly important to me. It was around this time that I started reading widely around videogames, and began taking an interest in game and narrative design in their own rights. Around my studies, including in exam term, I began working my way through books like Rules of Play, Game Feel, and Half-Real. Reading and thinking about videogames made me feel at home.

I remember getting an email from my supervisor on results day:

We got away with the dissertation?

Somehow it seemed we had.