Dear Fellow Writers,
Consider the following: you’ve got a story, with compelling characters, a well-defined setting, a strong plot, and a decent amount of action, but you want your prospective audience to experience your story as best as they possibly can. You want them to deal with the failures and successes of a character’s journey, and immerse themselves in a world with as many senses as they can. If audience experience is your primary goal, which storytelling medium should you go with? Do you turn this story into a screenplay, a book, a song? Maybe, but I have another option for you. Why not turn your next great story into…
a Video Game?
Don’t rub your eyes! You read it correctly. I said a video game. If you’re over a certain age and if you’re a woman, you’re likely to turn away. I don’t mean any offense by that. My seventy year old father loves playing the Civilization and Sim City series and I know plenty of female gamers, but the numbers don’t lie – although 41% of gamers are women, most women still aren’t gamers (Entertainment Software Association). I’m saying this to urge you not to turn away. This young medium has something the others do not – immersive interaction. When you play a video game, you’re investing not just your time, but your effort, your wits, and inevitably your emotion. It’s been years since I’ve regularly played, but I can still speak from experience. When used correctly with traditional storytelling elements video games immersed me in a world that sparked my imagination, made me care about heroes and despise villains, and one game even drove me to tears. You’ll want to stick around for that one.
If you’ve read my stuff before you know I like to back up what I’m saying with research. So far I haven’t found any academic studies on video games that would be relevant to this conversation. Most of them are focused on violence and hand eye coordination. Those don’t do me any good, so let’s take three storytelling elements that video games have a unique advantage in Point of View, World Building, and Stakes/Tension.
Point of View
First person shooters are games focused on using projectile based weapons in which the player experiences the action through the eyes of the protagonist. When a work of fiction is in first person, the writer uses the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘Me’, and there is a sense of intimacy the reader gets from this. If done well, the reader feels as though they’re privy to the point-of-view character’s thoughts. They feel like they’re taking part in that character’s actions. The interactive nature of video games gives this, and a little bit more. Not only is the audience in on the main character’s thoughts, they are in control of the character’s actions. You’d think that would take some of the creative power out of the storyteller’s hands but it doesn’t. The following clip is a gameplay preview of Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 4. The term gameplay preview means that this is what we’ll experience when we have full control of the game. Therefore someone is at the controller, playing the game as you’re watching this.
Turn the volume up and the lights down, and put this on full screen when you watch it. You don’t have to watch the whole thing. It’s seventeen minutes long, but at least watch he first two minutes and take note of the various storytelling elements the game is using. Tell me, fellow writers, how many paragraphs or pages would it take to explain the following? And what’s to say that your particular style of writing doesn’t pull certain readers out of the experience?
Notice the beginning, and the elements at play here. You and three of your companions are trapped in a car underwater. Your superior officer is stuck, the doors are stuck. He gives you his firearm and orders you to shoot your way out of the car and save yourselves. As the player you’re immediately asking yourself “How did I get here?” and the flashback ensues. In the case of the video game’s story, however, you get to play the flashback. It doesn’t kill the pace the way it could in a book. The ordeal is even more effective when the controller is in your hands.
Storytellers, from Stephen King and George RR Martin to Woody Allen and Christopher Nolan, need to build worlds, from Middle Earth and the sparkly vampire infested Pacific Northwest to the Upper East Side of Manhattan and South Fork Ranch of Dallas, Texas. Some might have to do it more than others, but just about everyone has to do it. The writer must acquaint the reader with an alien world without shoving a textbook down their throats. In television and film, a screenwriter must do the same through dialogue alone and trust that the set designers will do the production justice. While video game culture is diversifying, its roots are steeped in science fiction and fantasy, in which world building is critical.
Star Fox, released in 1993, takes place in a futuristic system inhabited by anthropomorphic animal races. You play Fox Mcloud, the leader of a team of elite mercenaries, you’ve been given state of the art Arwing fighters, and you’ve been charged with saving the star system from the mad scientist Andros. I feel old just talking about it, but back in these days games didn’t have voice actors. They just had dialogue boxes that you had to read as they scrolled down on their own sweet time. In spite of the limited technology, these worlds were impressive, vivid, and they gave rise to the best example of world building I’ve seen so far.
Ladies and gentlemen, the steampunk masterpiece Bioshock Infinite. (Watch this one all the way through)
Despite the relatively slow beginning, the first two lines that you hear are compelling enough to make you stick with it. Once the point of view character makes it to the floating city of Columbia, world building goes into hyper drive. Less than thirty seconds of gameplay could amount to a page of description. Observe the signs, the dialogue and banter you hear from the people around you, and other details that may take pages to read. I particularly love that quick flashback in which we discover the point-of-view character’s name. This is also a gameplay preview, so you’re watching this player stop and observe the things around him, not because he has to, but because he wants to. He could just as easy run right through to the next objective, and he’d still hear a revealing line or two.
Video games can do much to enhance Point of View and World Building, both elements which are crucial to telling a good story. I’ve saved the best for last, but it deserves its own post. In their immersive interaction, video games can do so much to raise the stakes of a story. I’ll get into this, and the one video game that brought me to tears on Saturday.