The Career Author Podcast asks: Do video games influence your writing?
And I have to say yes. Big yes.
Do they make me a better storyteller? Well, I’m always working on that.
(Here are some notes I wrote as an answer.)
I turn 45 this year and I finally had to admit that I love gaming, specifically PC gaming. I never had an NES or Gameboy as a kid, but my parents thought there was value in having a family PC, and I back in the day did everything I could to hunt down games. I copied thousands of lines of code out of the back of magazines. I found convenience stores that sold shareware discs beside the cash register, and the obsession grew from there.
It’s funny, because I think of most of Zach’s examples as being console games. I haven’t been able to play Horizon Zero Dawn or Last of Us yet, but I’ve sunk so much time into Fallout, Dishonored, Witcher, Half Life, Portal, Borderlands, Wolfenstein, Prey and all the Bioshocks that they could be second jobs. I recently completed two play-throughs of the Outerworlds, a worthy Fallout New Vegas clone, and now I’m going slowly through Control because I want to savor it.
(I think it all started with a game called Marathon, Bungie’s first game for the Mac, which combined first person shooter with exploration and storytelling that would eventually lead to Halo. The game is open source now as Aleph One and people have been using it to tell stories for more than 20 years.)
I’ve learned so much from gaming in several areas:
1. Milieu and Worldbuilding…
And how they communicate those things to the player, which translates as information flow to the reader in a story. Every game has a crucial first hour of gameplay, where they need to show the player how to interact with the game, and hook their emotions. The opening of Fallout 4 did an amazing job of this (but fell down in key areas later). Witcher 3 has an extended tutorial that serves fans familiar with the franchise while drawing in new players. It also establishes that this will be an adult story with adult characters. People make fun of the opening of Skyrim now that it’s become cliched, but I loved how it dropped me in the world, oriented itself with other Elder Scrolls games, and then a fracking dragon attacks you, setting up the stakes for the game. When I first killed a dragon, that was a satisfying moment set up from the beginning.
Bioshock is the best example of information flow that I’ve seen in any medium. It took me several tries to get the gameplay down, but I kept going back to the game because I wanted to explore Rapture. The hook at the beginning was that good. (Once the game play clicks though, it’s amazing, and as a player I felt just as hooked on plasmids as the mutated residents of Rapture.)
I loved the mechanic of character voices sharing their stories throughout the game, adding detail and richness, and that same mechanic is used in Prey, Dishonored and Control. (Each of these games know that players are drawn to these bits of lore, and often seeing a “lore delivery device” like a file folder in Control, triggers a fight. So you earn the lore, which creates an emotional hook. Beating the crap out of your character to give them a plot point is a great way of increasing reader engagement and getting those emotional responses Zach mentions.
Watching game design videos (Like an interview with Ken Levine where he talks about the mechanic of the Big Daddy/Little Sister in the player’s experience of the world) changed how I think about character/world building. The game play loop of fight/gather resource/explore is something that influences how I think about pacing.. and I think readers respond to the same things now.
When I learned story, it was what Eric Witchey and Jerry Oltion explained as “A character in a situation with a problem, then try/fail loop in order to move to resolution that either solves the character’s problem or doesn’t and forces change, as they move forward into a new world.” This is the basic game play/resource loop of most major games now. Try/Fail is either the main quest or a side quest, and I often think of plot progression as moving through a game.
Games have rules that should make sense to the player. So do books.
The character must earn everything, just like a player. The story/world is pushing on the character just like the environment/arena forces the player into action. In the best games, hiding in a corner and sniping the boss is always the least desirable way to play. Doom 2016 does a great job of pushing the player into the arena and then reveling in destruction as they gain health only through kills.
Player power evolves over time in satisfying ways that can also reveal the world/mileu. So do books.
Every game seems to have a point where the player becomes overpowered and the game might be fun for a while, but then my enjoyment drops off and it gets boring fast. I might keep playing for the story, but I usually stop. Same thing with characters. It’s hard to keep power-balance in check in a way that keeps people following the character forward, especially across a series. For me, this is where you build the team, get a ship, add new skill trees for each new level with different try/fail challenges, and then new plot points open up, creating opportunities for new stories.
4. Genre Language/Expectations.
At least in Science Fiction and Fantasy, I could argue that we’re moving into a time when more of our readers have shared experiences through gaming than reading. Games are mass media whether mainstream media wants to admit it or not, and our readers will click with the methods and archetypes used in games. I think many new readers are coming to space opera from the perspective of Borderlands, Mass Effect, Dead Space, and even Doom. I’m very aware of how these games treat commonalities like weapons, armor, vehicles/etc. Halo so overshadows most new Mil SF that it might as well all be fan fiction. You can’t write an AI without someone being disappointed if they aren’t Cortana.
My readers are split between retired folks who came up reading in the 60s/70s/80s (which I wish I had read more of) and younger readers who have played many of my favorite games. I’m always looking for ways to bridge those knowledge bases.
Watching the latest trends in gaming, especially indies, is a good way to think about what you’re going to write in the future and what audiences you want to hit. Indie game developers have the same discover-ability challenges as authors, and try all kinds of unorthodox methods to gain traction. Every 10 cent Switch game on the Nintendo Store is a way to game their crappy search engine, since they’ll rise in the ranks and hang on at full price for a couple weeks after the sale.
I play games to experience a new world and to unwind. They’re entertainment. I think the best games evoke emotion, like Bioshock, Fallout, Prey and lately Control but they’re still entertainment for me.
I try to remember that about my books. It doesn’t mean I can’t play with interesting ideas or challenge my characters in unique ways, but I don’t lose sight of the fact that my readers are looking to be entertained.
7. Gaming Art Books
are some of the cheapest science fiction art books you can find and they’re often amazing. I have a large collection. I flip through them when I’m looking for ideas or need help conceptualizing an area. Many have pages of assets from the game, like weapons, uniforms, characters, etc. The art book for Bioshock Infinite is also a great example of how a project evolves over time and ideas get dropped or changed, just like editing a book.
This article by Andrew Yoder about “The Door Problem of Combat Design” is about how to design an arena to encourage the player to get into the mix and not use the door to cut down enemies… For writers, I think it’s also an interesting way to think about how to challenge your characters, make interesting worlds for them to interact with, and in the end create a more rewarding experience for your reader.