Literary Gaming: Franz Kafka

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Hello and welcome to the first installment of what I hope will be a long series examining how various authors and literary movements have influenced the video games we love so much today. Without further ado, let’s jump into the cold, lonely, and darkly humorous world of Franz Kafka.

“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” With this one line (translated from its original German) Franz Kafka influenced generations of authors, each one seeking to imitate the loneliness and repulsiveness thatThe Metamorphosis called up in its opening paragraphs. There are thousands of articles and books one could find detailing how Kafka influenced prominent writers like Camus and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or how his themes still show up in movies like Barton Fink or even television shows likeBreaking Bad (which even has an episode titled “Kafkaesque”), but just how does Kafka influence the world of video games?

As it turns out, immensely. Isolation, revolting transformation, and faceless authority have been major themes in gaming since gaming’s inception, intentionally or otherwise. Even the plight of Pac-Man, eternally running his endless maze, collecting empty rewards as he’s chased by ghosts comes with a heavy dose of existential dread, but lately there has been a trend for more deliberate influences and references to Kafka. Let’s take a look at some more intentionally Kafkaesque games that have come out in recent years:

Dark Souls: admittedly, there are likely some other literary influences at work in the world of the Soulsseries, heavily reminiscent of dark fantasy writers like Gene Wolfe and Glen Cook, who were writing about lonely, brutal fantasy worlds long before Souls was ever dreamed of. That is not to say, however, that there are not broad strokes of Kafka’s work present in the series. Set in a crumbling, fallen land,Dark Souls places us in the shoes of a mysterious warrior slowly turning into an immortal, mindless husk. Rebelling against this gruesome fate, the protagonist sets out to do…something. The game is never upfront about the true nature of the quest. Snippets of dialogue are given by depressed warriors, by disgusting monsters, even by disgraced gods, but ultimately the player carries on slaughtering and being slaughtered for no clear gain. Just as in Kafka’s stories, ordinary morality and motivation have no bearing here. The world of Souls is one without hope or logic, subject to brutality and random yet cyclical transformation, falling apart and increasingly abandoned; in short, it is Kafkaesque to an extreme.

Portal: taking a different path, we find a game that is, at first glance, simply too funny to fit into Kafka’s depressing narratives. After all, this is the game that launched a thousand “the cake is a lie!” jokes. This ignores the fact that Kafka himself thought his own work was hysterical, however. When Franz Kafka read his first draft of The Metamorphosis to friends they laughed merrily about Gregor Samsa’s fate. Kafka’s worlds are ones of darkness, but they are also ones of comical absurdity. Faced with the increasingly maddened personality of GLaDOS, we can’t help but laugh, and yet there is a more terrifying element to the game. GLaDOS is Kafka’s faceless authority; she is a voice of inhuman reason always prodding our protagonist on, often with the threat of death. Chell’s quest through Portal, with its incredible loneliness and sometimes nonsensical logic, is perfectly Kafkaesque. GLaDOS herself is even a Kafkaesque protagonist of sorts, though I won’t spoil the reasons behind that here.

Papers, Please: you had to have seen this one coming. This is a game so Kafkaesque I have a hard time believing the developer wasn’t directly influenced by his work. Taking on the role of an immigration inspector for the fictional nation of Arstotzka, players become a cog in the faceless, oppressive machinery of an increasingly bloated legal system. Players are free to allow or deny potential immigrants as they choose, making decisions based on an ever lengthening list of qualifiers, examining their own morals as they do so. As they struggle to feed their family every night, many players find it more effective to simply turn away every immigrant, disconnecting themselves from the game morally so that they can become more efficient. Franz Kafka would be proud, or at least inspired. As a lawyer himself, Kafka was deeply influenced by the inhumanity he saw in the German/Austrian legal system of the time. With its focus on absurd bureaucracy and moral dissonance, Papers, Please fits neatly alongside works like The Trial and In The Penal Colony.

Naturally, these are not the only Kafkaesque games out there. There numerous video games that would stand proudly beside Kafka’s work, many more than I have room for in this article. In particular, the ever growing indie-game industry, with its focus on artistry and narrative, has been producing countless Kafkaesque hits. Check out Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, in numerous interviews and articles talking about his existentialist themes. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at the literary side of gaming. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with even more analysis. Feel free to leave suggestions for more authors in the comments. Happy reading, happy gaming!

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