Writing Lessons from Videogames

I started reading and writing at an early age. I was always a bookworm, and until my teens the only shows I really watched were “edutainment” based: Wishbone; Magic School Bus; Jim Henson’s Storyteller; and there was this Sunday morning cartoon that was just variations of Greek myths. As I got older, I moved from mythology to Victorian Literature and Canadian Literature. In each genre I tried to learn as much as I could, reading the criticism and analysis of each.

I was pretty nerdy.

I also developed an air of pretentiousness about it all. I could say rudeness, but I’ll settle for pretentiousness. I didn’t read comics, didn’t know about graphic novels, and didn’t really understand videogames. I didn’t want to, I considered these low-art. It was a definition I used a lot growing up: ‘low art’. It basically encompassed anything that wasn’t high-brow, like classical literature or paintings.

When I got to University and took better classes and met better people, I began to realize just how small my mindset was. I went very quickly from big fish, little pond to regular fish, big pond.

I knew about Classical literature and poetry but nothing about modern literature. I loved Monet and Renoir but knew nothing about modern art. I’m still struggling to accept post-modern art; I’m not sure I ever will.

It really wasn’t until I sat down and watched my boyfriend play a videogame that I began to realize how much work was put into the game to engage the audience. I had only thought about videogames in terms of mashing buttons with no real story or goal. It was a smack across the face to learn that there were storylines, driven characters and–often–gorgeous vistas that captured the setting. I began to learn about the history of videogames, from text adventures, to pixel art, to the more current cinematic, high budget games.

For a first couple years of our relationship I would just watch my boyfriend play videogames, it was like watching an interactive movie. Since I was in English and Film Studies at the time, I focused on character tropes and typical plot lines.

It wasn’t until Mass Effect that I really wanted to pick up the controller and play for myself. I made a character and did my best attempt at using the controllers. Growing up, the only all I could do was button-mashing, which lends itself well to Mortal Kombat but not much else. I found I could sort-of get the hang of the controls, but not fighting or driving vehicles.

Well-done and critically successful video games often have an immediately engaging, if not complex storyline. Mainstream games need mainstream appeal, and thus must create exciting storylines enjoyed and understood by the general populace.

There are two aspects to videogame writing that all authors should take note of. In order to be successful, games need to immediately engage the audience with an interesting plot, a well-formed world, and with relatable characters. This is done specifically in two ways:

1.  Engaging the Audience

There is a lot to be said for niche writing, however, not everyone is Hemingway, and not everyone needs to be Hemingway. Mainstream writing doesn’t necessarily mean rounding out the edges, or whitewashing characters; it’s creating a straight-forward story, with recognizable archetypes and recognizable plots. Most mainstream games have moved away from the solely “shoot-this-kill-that” form of plotting and into storylines that try to engage the audience. The objective can still be something simple (e.g., ‘Kill the Dragon’) but cohesive plot is required to support the players attention. That is, stories can be simple, but the audience needs to understand the plot and understand their objective in order to be engaged.

The Monomyth is something that readers can immediately latch onto. Some of the best and most popular writing of our age toes the line of the Monomyth. Recent videogame series like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls and Gears of War overtly rely on the structure of the Monomyth. But the cycle of the hero can be found in a variety of games from Half Life to Braid. The Monomyth provides a structure and frame for any plot. Combined with extensive world building, the Monomyth essentially creates a fully formed storyline with almost no effort. Its series of plot driven quests quickly form scaffolding for minor plot events to fit within.

As a side note: where the writing in Mass Effect succeeds and Gears of War fails is in the resolution of the story lines. Gears of War drops out shortly after revelation–leaving lots of unanswered questions. Then again, Gears of War is a series hinging on “isn’t that a cool shoot-em-up”, it was meant to look appealing to 14-21 year-old male demographic. Perhaps it’s my pretentiousness showing, but I try not to read too far into a series that borrows quotes from Duke Nukem (“eat shit and die”).

Beyond narrative patterns, the easiest way to immediately engage the audience is to start in media res–basically, in the middle of the scene. It’s common for games to begin this way; the player gets to immediately learn handling and get a feel for the mechanics of the game, occasionally with a full arsenal that is progressively unlocked later, like Darksiders or Shadow Complex.

Novels that use this literary device tend to do one of two things: either open in the middle of a story then backtrack to a point that the reader can catch up to the author, or use the in media res as the teaser before the novel. Writers talk a lot about hooking the reader. Beyond flipping through a book in a library or bookstore, readers can preview novels on e-readers; authors need to be hyper-aware of the need to hook a reader in the first 50 pages.

Whether you need to attract new readers or maintain a current fanbase, the first two chapters of a book need to grab at the audience. This means limiting the exposition that covers any past novel and identifying the first conflict that the protagonist faces. This conflict can be physical, emotional, or psychological. Mira Grant’s Deadline has an exhausting first 100 pages where the team of protagonists seems to constantly hit one hurdle after another. The difficulty in amping up the adrenaline in the first few hundred pages is that the readers can react one of two ways: they become hooked or they become exhausted.

Book teasers and back cover synopses are easy ways to hook an audience if you’re looking for another way to appeal to readers. These are usually short, tightly-written, conflict-packed, blurbs that give the reader a jist of the novel. Teasers can be from any part of the novel, but they need to outline who the main character is, what conflict they are facing, and how they intend to deal with it. The outlining of the main character is the most important detail, if your character isn’t relatable then readers will reconsider purchasing your novel.

2. Following or Subverting Archetypes

Characters are relatable if they reflect our ideologies. An ideology encompasses a person’s worldview and ethics. To create a protagonist that appeals to a wide-set audience the character must either comply or question mainstream ideologies. To do this, writers utilize archetypes. Archetypes are universally understood symbols that are essentially used as a photocopier, and are reproduced throughout works of literature.

Regardless of the execution of the storylines, most action-based game series use archetypal characters and a variation of the Five-Man Band or Chosen-One tropes. As an aside, trope seems to be a rather debated term, it originally conveyed a figure of speech or metaphor–it now seems to be used to describe themes and archetypes.

Interesting and interactive characters need to be established quickly in videogames. The easiest, and often best, way to do so is to rely on these character archetypes and tropes. Archetypes and tropes exist for a reason, and if used correctly provide a familiarity to the audience. Videogame characters need to be recognizable enough for the audience to understand but also a blank slate that they can project themselves onto. The need for audience identification is why most videogame characters have only the barest character outlining.

Establishing character is not the same thing as character development. Character development in a dramatic arc is a long and complex process, but in a game it’s completely at odds with what a world needs to achieve. The art of establishing characters is conveying an impression of who they are in totality, because they are just a part of a portrait.

Video Game Writing and the Sense of Story

Some writers try too hard to veer away from using tropes, believing them to be unoriginal or too expected. There is nothing wrong with giving into (some) expectations. Archetypes and tropes are a generic image that the author must either follow or subvert. Writers tend to confuse the addition of varying details with subversion. When it comes to well-known plot devices or characters, writers are often encouraged to challenge set archetypes. For example, Brandon Sanderson continually subverts the archetypes he uses in the Mistborn series – setting up an ideal hero, only to knock them down chapters or books later.

Brandon Sanderson has always been vocal about the use of archetyping in writing and how writers (specifically fantasy writers) need to be more original and more daring in their approach.

Using these symbols as a guidebook not only maligns them, but betrays one’s own creative impulses… Instead of allowing meaningful discovery and creation, fantasy authors import the dry husks of overused stereotypes. Fantasy, which should be the most creative of genres, becomes repetitive and stagnant.

Brandon Sanderson, Form and the Fantastic

I don’t think that Sanderson is specifically rallying writers to abandon archetypes but to use them with discretion. To look at an archetype critically rather than blindly follow the guiding principles of that archetype.

Videogames have started to subvert audience expectation of archetypes and stereotypes. A game that did this flawlessly was Braid: in a key level it appears that the princess is being chased by a monster as the hero, Tim, tries to rescue her. Once the scene is played back in reverse, it restructures itself. The princess is not running from the supposed monster, but Tim. Another example would be Darksiders–where the audience plays as War. one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. There is no typical hero in the game.

The most common complaint about videogames is that they are simple. That there is no real storyline and it panders to male teenage gamers. Videogames began as simple text adventures–to say there is no story-line involved in their creation is faulty. There may not necessarily be dynamic or complicated story and plotting but there is always some semblance of a structure or character tropes that are used. The Entertainment Software Association released a 2012 report citing that “women 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (30%) than boys age 17 or younger (18%)”. Norms and stereotypes within videogames will continue to be challenged as the female gamer population increases and as more women pursue videogame development. As well, the rise of the indie videogame platform has led to a pursuit of original concepts that challenge audience expectations.

Genred writing has been described as stale. There is a reason that sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres are overlooked critically. Often writers find a formula for success and it is copied over and over. For example, female investigator meets charming rogue is a common storyline in urban fantasy and paranormal romances. This isn’t to say that books that follow this formula are unpopular or simple – but they have found an archetype and have stayed the structure that was provided.


Extra Credit Reading