Awhile ago I wrote a mini-review of Things We Think About Games, and in it I said I'd like to explore the 109th thought in that book: RPGs are not literary forms. This comes from Pat Harrigan who's other tidbits in Things We Think were some of the best. In fact, I think I partially agree with him, but I'd like to explore this issue further.
Harrigan paraphrases a line about great books not being able to be read, but only reread. Great literature has a quality in its depth that might only reveal itself on further examination. So far I'm not in disagreement with him.
RPGs though - or the scenarios we play out in games - are only played once. No examination, only further movement.
First, I want to challenge this point on making our sole criteria of literary quality the reread-ability of great works. There are many classics of literature that have thematic depth, subtext, and other qualities that are noticeable on first reading - especially to intelligent and enthusiastic readers (I'm not accusing Harrigan of lacking these traits, I'm just saying I think he forgot about further literary qualities).
RPGs are capable - and often greatly encouraged - to develop a theme woven into stories and chronicles. I believe White Wolf's World of Darkness line does an excellent job of this. Both in the first chapters and storyteller chapters of their books they discuss the use of theme in games. This is one way that RPGs can have literary quality.
RPGs could - in theory - have subtext woven into them too, but I believe this would be more difficult. It's the same with improv theater. In theory an improv scene can have subtext in it, but this is not the primary goal and the group would either have to go out of their way to introduce the subtext or it would have to come out by accident. So, this is a possibility, but less so than theme.
In RPGs characters can develop, change, and reach great depth as chronicles progress. I believe this is another way RPGs can have something approaching literary quality. This becomes a more collaborative effort though on both the game master and players part, and there is an element of luck in characters surviving and characters engaging in the right kinds of situations that would give them depth - this isn't entirely luck, not by far - but it seems like luck would play a greater role in these instances than in the development of a novel.
Finally, on reexamination - why couldn't we replay certain campaigns and re-explore issues further? Granted, this isn't often likely done, but replaying the same scenario to explore a certain issue of character or theme might give RPGs something more like the literary quality that Harrigan says they lack.