Video Game Storytelling

Video Game Storytelling



Main Points
• Video games can tell great stories with some crossover techniques for writing.
• Video games excel in immersion; accountability; giving small rewards; tutorials; and quick starts into action.
• Emphasize what books can do that video games (and other mediums) can’t, such as taking time; using additional senses including touch, taste, and smell; interior dialogue; and having independent characters who each have their own character arcs.

I love playing video games. It’s one of the things that distracts me the most from my writing because they’re so enjoyable. I like multiplayer first-person shooters such as Halo and Overwatch, games with a lot of story like Bioshock, Mass Effect, The Last of Us, or just fun games like Dying Light and God of War. I especially love when developers combine great game mechanics with amazing story.

As I’ve consumed video games, they’ve taught me a few things about storytelling–things that can translate into the written sphere and some of which cannot.

Pros of Video Gaming Where games shine
Immersion Video game worlds can be extremely immersive as players jump into the role of a character that explores the world/universe. They can interact with hundreds of NPCs (non-playable characters), teasing out alternative storylines, going on additional quests, all the while learning more and more about the world. Unlike writing, video games can have large amounts of optional content that’s separate from the main storyline. Unrelated side quests are typically anathema to writing. Books need to be tight, well thought of, and have all the fat/excess trimmed so there’s nothing in the plot that shouldn’t be. Everything needs a purpose in a book, while in a video game, you can throw in as much additional content as you want.

Accountability Accountability is another huge thing in video games. By this, I mean the accountability that comes from making choices–what to level up in an RPG, who to talk to, what quests to complete. Often, you as a player get to choose what the character looks like, what their background is, and how they interact with others.

Some games allow for complex moral decisions that can have long reaching impacts. One of my favorite series is Mass Effect (ME). When I played the third game, there were certain mistakes I had made in game 2 that didn’t allow me to progress how I wanted in the current game. The ghosts of my previous choices haunted me. When an important character died on a mission, I was devastated. After her death, I found an in-game email from her asking for my help before she had died. Because this was Mass Effect, I realized if I had gone to see her when she asked for my help, she would probably still be alive.

My decision impacted me in a way books can’t. Books are linear (with the exception of choose-your-own-adventures). No matter how many times you read it, the book will always turn out the same. Video games, on the other hand, can create the story as you go along. I’ve seen great fiction implements part of this by having various characters flirt with important decisions that would severely impact their life. While the outcome is always the same, when I reread these sections it makes me wonder how things could have been different had they chosen otherwise.

Quick Reward System Video games sometimes get a bad rap for this as they tap into the addictive nature of our brain’s craving for quick rewards. It’s 10 p.m., but all I need is 100 more experience points to level up, then I can get that new skill/talent/ability I’ve been wanting. I beat the necessary monsters, level up and now it’s 10:45 p.m. but I can’t go to bed without trying out the new ability. I give myself fifteen minutes more and it’s amazing. Suddenly, I get a bit more of the plot and it’s exciting! Before I know it, it’s 2:00 a.m. and I’d be willing to go for another three hours.

Sound familiar? While writing doesn’t necessarily have this leveling up structure, we can give readers something to look forward to and tap into that same reward cycle for small goal progress: a new piece of information can be gleaned; a newly acquired skill can be put to the test; something horrible happens; a new revelation is just around the corner. You can go through your outline and make sure each chapter has some kind of reward.

Tutorials I love a good tutorial that teaches me to play WHILE I’m learning the story. A great video game will put you in the action while teaching you the controls. They give you just enough to get started, then by the ending you’re a master. I hate tutorials that put you in a stale room and have you go over the basics without having anything to do with the story. These tutorials are boring, feel like a waste of time, and drag on.

Writing can have the same issue. Introducing magic systems, cultures, etc. all takes time. Often, fantasy can have high learning curves with many characters, magic systems, places, and names all thrown at the reader at once. But if the writer can start with something like a tutorial where the reader gets to see the magic in action while being involved with the story and characters, it’ll feel much better than just info dumping.

One game that does this well is the first Halo. You start off with a cool video of your spaceship being attacked by aliens. Then you, a cyborg super-warrior, are woken up out of cold storage. There’s a small tutorial on looking around, getting a feel for the controls, then you’re off. Explosions abound as you make your way to the bridge (teaching movement controls along the way) where you get an additional mission and start learning combat. By the end of the first level, you’re taught how to use a flashlight (in a darkened tunnel as you make your escape), how to throw/switch grenades, and all the mechanics of fighting. All this information is done during the action, meaning the player is engaged the entire time while learning.

Quick Starts Video games also do a great job of getting you into the action quickly, though mileage varies with the game. Mass Effect 2 comes to mind for this. There’s a small prologue to summarize the events of the first game. Then we’re in the Normandy spaceship and it suddenly gets attacked. You immediately take control of the main character, Commander Shepard, as he/she starts fighting back and putting out fires. It’s an epic opening, one that draws the gamer in instantly, and is one that would translate nicely into a book. For writing, it doesn’t have to be a quick start into the main plot, but it should at least be a quick start into some plot.

Another AMAZING example of this is The Last of Us, which not only had a masterful tutorial woven into the beginning but has one of the most emotionally impactful openings of any fictional medium I’ve experienced. The game quickly makes us care about the characters and immediately throws us into the horror of the game. Seriously, if you haven’t experienced the opening of this title, spend 15 minutes watching it on YouTube. It’ll be worth it.

Video Game Cons Where books intrude
So what can books do that video games can’t (or don’t do as well)?
Take Your Storytelling Time For one thing, novels can take their time. This means that books can become lengthy series, such as the Wheel of Time, The Stormlight Archives, Game of Thrones, etc. Video games tend to be self-contained stories, or at most are part of a trilogy. Novels also get to take their time in developing characters while video games are at the mercy of their gameplay. As strong as the story is in The Last of Us, much of the time is spent playing killing zombies, taking out humans, etc. A book however, can take spent more time developing characters and exploring backstories without all the specific types of action that are required in a video game.

Additional Senses A novel can use FAR MORE senses than video games (or film). Electronic media is generally limited to visual and auditory cues but a novel can use EVERY sense: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and beyond. And a novel should use all these. An error I fall into a lot is just relying on hearing and sight, because I often write as if I were seeing the scene on a screen. That is a huge limitation you want to avoid. Utilizing all the senses can draw readers into your story in ways that movies/video games simply can’t.

A book also allows you to populate the world with your own imagination. It’s a much more personalized version of storytelling since the reader ultimately determines what they think the characters look like, sound like, etc. That’s why movies based on films are often denigrated because every single viewer imagined the book’s elements differently than what’s portrayed.

Into the Mind of the Character A book can also get into someone’s head. This is a huge advantage over video games, that generally rely on very limited third person viewpoints. When movies attempt to add interior dialogue, it often comes out as cheap and feels off. Some movies succeed with narration but most just avoid it. However, in a novel, interior monologue is natural, giving us even more depth into the characters’ minds.

Deeper/Independent Characters Video games also tend to suffer from having the entire universe revolve around the playable character. Nothing else really exists until the main character interacts with them. This is still the case with a lot of games. On the flip side, novels often handle large numbers of characters better. They have their own lives and are free to exist without having the main character hit ‘x’ next to them. Multiple POVs can be represented at different times, making a battle scene or other event more exciting whereas such POV switching in a video game might be jarring.

Learning From Gaming
We can take some of the lessons of storytelling from gaming and apply them to writing. First, we can use the strengths that come from video games. We can add a bit more immersion by including things that are still interesting but are more secondary to the main plot (a side quest or two). We can include some more accountability by raising the stakes. George R.R. Martin is (in)famous for this, as all his are in danger of actually being killed off. His writing gives a level of suspense that outweighs similar novels where we know the main character has to survive until the end. If we can’t kill off our main character, we can put side characters at risk. For re-playability, we can include enough foreshadowing or have characters flirt with life changing decisions that will engage a reader in different ways when they reread the novel, now that they know what the foreshadowing means. We can add in-story tutorials to help the reader learn the world while simultaneously getting involved with the story.

On the flip side, we can push harder on the things that novels are especially strong at. We can use all the senses (especially non-auditory and non-visual ones). We can make sure each important character has an arc and they get enough face time in the story with interior dialogue. We can give just enough description for readers to have a grasp on our world but leave them enough space to imagine everything going on through their own eyes.

So what have you learned about storytelling from gaming? Leave your comments below and thanks for reading!

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