Paper-feel and digital play: Note-taking and videogames

by Claire Osborn-Li

Note: This essay has been designed to be viewed on a desktop computer. If you are on a mobile or tablet device, view the mobile version.

After months (years?) of stagnation in lockdown, I handle a pen with an uncertain grip. I feel a tremor as I write, now, and my script varies wildly as I adjust and readjust. The paper is soft, smooth, and just barely warming to my touch. Picking up the controller again I feel its weight, its solidity: it clicks like a pen but vibrates as I wake it from its sleep. 

I am playing a videogame and taking notes. Videogames like Return of the Obra Dinn, Fez and Witness have brought about a renaissance of the hand-written note. The typical triple-A game has eliminated the need for notes: quests are automatically marked in a quest-log and maps have waypoints and symbols the player can use to mark their destination. The goal is full immersion in the game’s progress, with scarce opportunities to exit the main window of play, like checking up on quests or examining the inventory. For the most part, the player’s attention is focussed towards the immediate action playing out in front of them. 

This impulse towards in-game immersion has taken away the kind of immersion we experience when the game bleeds past the borders of the screen. Taking notes allows for a tangible connection between the digital and the real. 

Her Story makes use of note-taking to create a trans-immersive story. From the outset the game presents itself as our computer screen. On booting up the game, we are met with an old PC interface of a police department. A Readme.txt tells us that we’ve been granted guest access to these police interviews with one woman, Hannah. These interviews are cut into hundreds of short clips, and because of our guest access, when searching key terms only the first five videos matching that term can be watched. Already we have a sense that the game, through the computer screen, has entered – maybe even intruded – on our domestic space. Sam Barlow, the lead developer, called the computer itself a ‘prop in the game’, with the ‘world of the game … being transported to your desk-bound reality’.

And as we play, we are implicitly (the game doesn’t directly suggest this) led to take notes. So much information is being digested at once – all of it fragmentary and much of it mundane – that very quickly your ears learn to prick up at the hint of something interesting. My notes for Her Story appear as a list of excited scribbles – terms searched are crossed out. The aha! moments of other puzzle games are traded for squinting eyes and hmms: like a scrutinising detective taking notes with a guarded suspect, all leads are good leads. I write down names, dates, locations and behaviours (Hannah at one point is seen tap, tap, tapping… curious!) and follow each one. My notes are haphazard: I end up jotting down notes in two different notebooks. The threshold being crossed is not one-way, real world into digital, but synergic. As my notes grow, I feel as though I am not only invested in the game, but the game is invested in me: it’s entered my world because it relies on me to piece these fragments together.

And so it’s not only the computer that is a prop in Her Story, but the notes we make, too. We invest a lot of fantasy, I think, in the notebook; when we stuff it into our tote along with a nice pen, taking it out at the bar or on the bus to crunch numbers, even though we can do that all on our phone anyway. Everyone wants to be the kind of person who carries a notebook. The analog is romantic, like a record player or film camera. 

Because of this, the notebook is easily swept up into videogame escapism. When taking notes while playing Colestia’s A Hand With Many Fingers, I’m an investigator sifting through the archives, secretly unmasking an intergovernmental conspiracy. When recording shop inventories and locations in Sunless Sea I’m a merchant, doing anything I can to turn a profit and survive. In Puzzle Agent ,I’m a government agent untangling mysterious, illegible clues. Less conscious than the act of roleplay, note-taking evokes the sensation of these roles and a renewed image of the self. 

Note-taking is not just an extension of the videogame into real space but also an exchange: between self and game. This kind of exchange is far from exclusive to note-taking, and might well be fundamental to the experience of gaming. As Brendan Keogh – Lecturer in the School of Communication, and a Chief Investigator in the Digital Media Research Centre at QUT – writes in A Play of Bodies:

The videogame player exists in a doubled world, enacting and interpreting in a singular function–not a purification of player on one side and character on the other … but a play of bodies that dances across actual and virtual spaces. Videogames require an all-at-once notion of embodied textuality that accounts for physicality and signification, form and content, as irreducible and inseparable.

As Keogh argues, the very act of playing a videogame is a fully hybrid experience, one where the traditional separations of virtual/real, avatar/body and subject/object coalesce. 

But the interruption between these unitiesthat occurs each time I snatch my eyes away from the screen, put the controller down and pick up a pen to jot down a key piece of information represents a departure from the simultaneous and inseparable embodiment Keogh describes. From the moment the controller is put down, the game is no longer receiving input. I have untethered myself from the direct physicality of videogame play. My gameself sits, waiting, on her horse. She idles on the spot, shifting her weight from leg to leg and checking her watch. She stands still, silhouetted against the night sky. Can this hybridity of videogame play be maintained?

I think of the interruption of note-taking not as a stoppage, but as a generative force. In an animated conversation, interruption can be a sign of full engagement: engrossed, adding-to and suggesting, lively and syncopated. My body may be disconnected, trading controller input for the touch of paper and ink, but my mind is aware of the feel of the real world as it lingers in the game. Like the exchanges of a conversation, the exchanges of videogame hybridity are encouraged through interruption. It is interrupture, an act which fundamentally alters the player-experience.

One exchange occurs at the point of player and character. In the act of note-taking, these two bodies coalesce. The player’s note-taking amounts to an adaptation or direct, personal appropriation of the text. According to Kameelah Janan Rasheed, a writer and artist who collages the written word and engages with annotation, ‘each time we read something, we’re annotating on the page or in our heads and creating a new text. It’s this act of collaboration between the reader and the writer’.

This idea of creating a new text through the simple act of participation evokes Jorge Luis Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. In this short story, Pierre Menard is a writer who dedicates himself to recreating Don Quixote; the fragmented result (Menard never completed the work, only having written a couple chapters) is word-for-word the same, but the narrator declares it an improvement over the original. It has become entirely new by way of interpretation. It’s just as Rasheed says: Menard and Cervantes have collaborated to make new work. 

While it is also true that this happens even in the simple act of reading, it is the physical act of rewriting that makes this idea most palpable. It’s not only the context of Menard’s life which augments the narrator’s reading of the text – he also draws close attention to the physicality of the rewritten text:

I recall his square-ruled notebooks, his black-crossings-out, his peculiar typographical symbols, and his insect-like handwriting. In the evening, he liked to go out for walks on the outskirts of Nimes; he would often carry along a notebook and make a cheery bonfire.

The text underwent material changes that would have affected its interpretation: written in Menard’s hand, scrawled and crossed-out, smelling of smoke and ash. What kind of changes do we impose on the text of the videogame when we make notes? In pen, pencil, crayon, marker, on sticky notes, to-do lists, notepads, notebooks, lined, dotted, gridded, on pages ripped or creased. On perfumed paper, rough paper, in the blank pages at the end of a book or on the back of a hand. Piecemeal, disorganised thoughts or a perfect journal of the player’s playthrough. In each iteration, the game’s story is reinterpreted: the player/character is born anew. 

We see these material alterations occur at the personal level of body, skin and flesh in Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive. Here, the game weaves a narrative of post-humane fantasy: you serve an empress who drips with death, decay and decadence, and in between commissions, you wander the vast world in and beyond the palace. It’s a tale of survival in spite of violence. Some of this violence is fantasy, all apocalyptic, bloody, and wince-worthy. The violence of perceptions of gender and family disownment, on the other hand, are tangibly real and strongly felt. 

This is a game which explicitly invites the reader to have a pen at the ready: at the turn of each “chapter”, the player is asked to draw a sigil directly on their skin. Draw a sigil of new beginnings, of shame, of relationship with chasm. But the appearance of these sigils are interpreted and drawn by the reader, not copied down. Marked into skin and pressed into flesh, they are struck at the very site of the body. The exchange of the personal is two-fold: the player’s birth month, element and eye colour are all entered before they begin. From the outset the game not only marks the player, but the player marks the game. The inked sigils on my wrist fade after I bathe. Away from the screen, the fantasy remains in motion, player and text altering each other even now. 

Note-taking is an extension of the videogame, just like a controller or touch-screen stylus, but while the controller allows for physical communication between the body and the character, notes are an extension of computing memory. At the peak of note-taking with videogames in the 80s and 90s, note-taking was a means of filling in the gaps that videogames didn’t have the memory to perform (maps and quest logs take up space!). Instead, it was commonplace for players to keep graph paper and pencil handy to sketch out dungeons and item/NPC locations. The limitations of the digital gave way to the incorporation of the physical. 

But note-taking is also about extending the memory of the human mind. In note-taking, we delegate the responsibility of remembering to a piece of paper, the way that a cyborg has sight through a camera which has replaced its eye. The interrupture of note-taking enacts, then, a hybridised extension of game and player memory. Notes become a shared organ, the brain of the player/game body. These links are made literal in Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, where the player is able to make notes in an overlay called “Brain Memory”. As the story progresses, the notes in this memo fade and distort, just as the character’s memory punctures and leaks. 

In Elden Ring, note-taking is only implicit, perhaps even discouraged. The absence of quest logs and rumour tabs of standard design for open-world games like these (Skyrim being the other big-ticket fantasy example) invites the player instead to relinquish control to the game. The player floats in and around locations, discovering NPC storylines by stumbling upon them. This gives Elden Ring’s already massive map an even greater sense of endlessness: encounters could happen at any time, in any order. Progression becomes subjective and non-linear.

Our impulse for control and completeness ultimately take over. I take notes in spite of how I feel the game wants me to play. But note-taking is not only about control over memory: it’s also about creating a collective memory of a game. This collective memory around videogames is invariably formed on the internet, in the digital note. Elden Ring, in contrast, encourages this. Aside from the in-game collective experiences which are created (where in a solo game notes left from other players can be read in-situ, and where certain items can summon other players to aid in a fight) the expansive, fragmentary lore encourages players to share their notes on the lore of the game with each other on the internet, in YouTube video comments, Reddit threads and Steam Community discussions. This kind of note-sharing exists for all popular games in game guides like those in GameFAQs. The memory of the videogame once more expands beyond the screen, scattering across individual notes as well as in collectively collated notes on these forums. Note-taking while playing farming-simulator Stardew Valley in its early days was essential for a productive run, as villagers mentioned their birthdays and favourite foods and as the Community Centre requested endless items to be donated. But over six years since its launch, the Stardew Valley Wiki is expansive, well-maintained and regularly accessed by players. It’s not really seen as cheating, either – these notes have become part of the experience of farm-productivity, allowing players to make the most of each short day which passes in-game. 

But memory is perhaps even more at stake here. As extensive as it is today when compared to the early days of computing, data storage still feels precious. When the harddrive fills up, fragmented, contextless notes like these are the first to go. As technological obsolescence accelerates, so do the loss of these notes, and alongside them, the games they were taken with. Virtue’s Last Reward, with its distorting in-game “Brain Memory”, reminds us of the fragility of both digital and physical note-taking. 

My game notes have been scattered across half-filled notebooks; some are suede-like forgotten commitments, others collected as mere trinkets. I found them shoved into bookshelves and sandwiched between op-shop books. Notes are scrawled between Scrabble point-takings and thoughtless doodles. And when eShops retire, harddrives turn to rust and websites close down, all that remains of my trans-immersive memories may be the faded remnants of these scattered paper ephemera. 

Works cited

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