Image: Matthew Loffhagen
No creative medium can boast as explosive a conception as video games. While the earliest video game was created in 1947, the industry didn’t really get started until Pong burst onto the scene in the 1970s. Since then, it’s been one monumental success after another and, today, video games are a multi-billion-dollar industry, are popular across a whole range of demographics, and have spawned a distinct and vibrant culture.
Since the first generations to enjoy video games are now all grown up, the appetite for texts inspired by or otherwise approaching video games has grown exponentially. The market for nostalgia and nerd culture has never been higher, and with such heavy-hitters as Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett, and Anthony Horowitz having paved the way, books that co-opt the concept and aesthetics of video games are becoming far more popular. Think particularly of Ernest Cline’s enormously successful Ready Player One, released to critical and commercial acclaim in 2011.
As video games mature, critics have begun to take them more seriously and, as such, writing about video games need not be ill-advised or even particularly radical. That said, it’s easy to go wrong when trying to translate the appeal of video games into written text – pitfalls are everywhere and, if you’re not careful, you’ll be writing about pixels, crafting weak and cliched plots, and dropping in more Easter eggs than your narrative can support. Here’s how to ensure you’re taking only the best of what this young medium has to offer.
Why write about video games?
Of all the things to write about, why video games? Why struggle to integrate a young, unique, interactive medium into an ancient, un-interactive, linear form? Well, video games are everywhere. Mobile devices mean that simple games are an everyday art form, and gaming consoles and computers have made games a natural part of the default media many people consume.
On top of this, they’re not ‘new’ any more, and the power of nostalgia cannot be overstated – older generations remember crowding around dusty arcade machines, while younger readers may have been more or less raised by their N64s, PS2s, or Xbox 360s. Video games are part of our language and our culture, and to ignore them in your writing makes it that bit less connected to the real.Video games are a fact of our culture – ignore them and your writing strays from the real.Click To Tweet
In fact, video games are a remarkable feature of our increasingly sci-fi modernity; Arthur C. Clarke wrote The City and the Stars in 1956, anticipating the eventual dominance of massively-multiplayer online games and virtual reality, but it has not taken the thousands of years Clarke suspected for these things to find grounding in reality. More recently, Charlie Brooker used the anthology series Black Mirror to firmly foreground the metaphysical implications of the medium.
This means that video games offer up a spectrum that goes from campy (a la Serious Sam, Wolfenstein, and Duke Nukem) to colorful (mascots like Mario, Sonic, and Pikachu are all akin to cartoon characters) to philosophical (think The Stanley Parable, Bioshock, and Silent Hill).
Then there are games that incorporate literature into their final product. Games like the Dark Souls franchise and the Mass Effect series provide a codex in which readers can read about the settings and characters, enhancing their understanding of the world. There are even games where literature is the objective, such as Gone Home or Dear Esther, where the reader hunts down snippets of writing, gradually unraveling a story which is read on the screen rather than the page. Finally, games such as Subsurface Circular, in which the player solves a murder mystery by choosing which questions and responses to level at suspects, suggest an artistic landscape in which games are best-placed to tell certain kinds of stories and will only see growing popularity and variety.
Perspective and the protagonist
The most important thing to think about when taking inspiration from video games in your fiction is how the reader, protagonist, and player dynamics interact. After all, both video games and books have protagonists, but while books present action to the reader as something detached and linear, video games allow the player to directly control characters – as such, many of the most successful video game characters have been more or less hollow shells for the player to project him/herself into (think of Master Chief from Halo, Link from The Legend of Zelda, and Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series).
While this doesn’t work so well in traditional third-person literary narratives (though it is often the case that protagonists are rather bland when compared to supporting characters), the relationship between the reader and the protagonist is definitely worth paying attention to when writing about (or in the style of) video games. Think of the various narrative perspectives; the first-person perspective invites reader character-habitation in a similar way to the aforementioned ‘shell characters’ common to video games, whereas the oft-forgotten second-person more directly pulls a reader into narrative action, raising questions regarding the narrator’s identity and the reader’s place in the story.
The question of agency likewise becomes important; players typically control single or multiple characters in a video game, whereas readers have stories dictated to them. While you can’t realistically allow a reader to choose their own path through your book (at least, not without some pretty impressive structural innovation), you can shape what kind of questions the reader asks and, in doing so, make them think like a gamer instead of a reader.
Let me explain: during the early chapters of a book, the reader will be responding to the plot, characters, and setting in a curious, information-hungry manner. They will have questions about the world they’re being introduced to, the characters’ roles within that world, and the progression of the emerging linear plot: ‘Who is this character?’, ‘What does she want?’, ‘What is this place?’, etc. These questions are fundamentally different to the questions a player has within the first few hours of a new game – these tend to be more along the lines of: ‘Where am I?’, ‘What do I do?’, ‘Where do I go?’, ‘What happens when I do this?’, etc. If you can push your readers through first- or second-person narrative perspective and reader-centric narration to ask these questions about your fiction, you’ll have them thinking (and engaging) like gamers in no time.
Form and structure
The obvious literary precursor to video games are the Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks popular in the closing decades of the twentieth century and, while these works were often simplistic and formulaic, they certainly laid the foundation for interesting narrative structures.‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books allow for surprising literary innovation.Click To Tweet
Video games have expanded upon these structures and traditionally favor modular narratives. This is partly due to how games are made; during development, budget fluctuation or executive attention may require whole sections (or ‘chapters’) of the game to be removed, and so game writers have learned to craft stories that can stand on their own feet even after self-contained chunks are ripped out of them. This modular method of storytelling also lends itself well to the classic ‘level’ structure favored by many video game franchises.
Unfortunately, level- and dungeon-structures tend not to work too well in fiction. The same sudden geographic contrasts that keep games like Banjo-Kazooie, Dark Souls 2, and Super Mario Odyssey feeling fresh and fun to play tends to fragment textual narrative rather jarringly, leaving settings and environments feeling contrived, gimmicky, and empty.
So if straightforward emulation isn’t the way forward, what is? Well, modular storytelling is in itself a fascinating method that has been put to brilliant use by writers such as Jennifer Egan (in her Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Good Squad). It allows the writer to manipulate timelines in innovative ways; reframe and re-introduce characters; and structure climaxes, beginnings, and endings in ways that eliminate the need for sustained momentum and strict three-act structures.Modular storytelling builds fiction around a conceptual core rather than a character.Click To Tweet
But beyond that, video game storytelling tends to be more passive; everything from the environment to in-game item descriptions to characters to cut-scenes become opportunities to add to the story or provide information about the world. Games like Journey and Inside tell their stories almost entirely through their settings, while others like Final Fantasy and the Metal Gear Solid series (which Tony Tulathimutte called ‘the Infinite Jest of games’) rely heavily on more cinematic storytelling methods which suspend the player’s control.
In fiction, a more effective way to emulate video game structures is therefore to shift the narrative focus away from the progression of the central plot toward the details of the world around the reader surrogate/protagonist. This kind of blurred progression can help obscure the linearity of fiction and suggest a more open-ended progression reliant upon the reader’s analysis of contextual and environmental details. As in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, the story is less about the conclusion and more about exploring and absorbing the world and characters. Let objects – the faded, torn flag draped across the wire fence; the strange wooden effigy stood at the forest’s edge; the framed photo of the young, smiling blonde – tell their own stories. Make your story a puzzle and trust in your reader to work it out.
Some practical advice
In terms of the actual substance of writing about video games, here are some tips. Games began in arcades, where it cost money for each ‘turn’, and then steadily moved into the home. Early games kept many of their arcade trappings, structuring themselves around ‘lives’ and ‘levels’, but gradually moved away from that sort of design, since the player was now paying once for the game entire.
Once games started being more about a continuous experience, ‘saving’ became a big part of how they were played, allowing players to log their progress through the game and pick up where they left off. Technological innovation has made this easier and easier – early games required you to write down complex codes that then had to be re-entered, then later to manually save your progress at certain points in the game, then later to save at any time but to a dedicated piece of hardware like a ‘memory card’, and now finally to the point where saving is usually automatic and the player rarely even considers it.
For these reasons, many pop-culture depictions of gaming are woefully old-fashioned. Lives, levels, and save points still exist in some games, but they’re rarer and far less restrictive. To hear a player bemoan that they want to keep going because they’re ‘nearly on the last level’ no longer rings true, nor does fury at losing their last life. Games with lives and levels are still played, and still made, but generally with one eye on nostalgic, semi-ironic enjoyment.Depictions of video game ‘lives’ and ‘levels’ can make many readers cringe.Click To Tweet
Modern games tend to be more about gradual progress. Resources, whether items or abilities, are generally fed by activities in the game. Spend an hour picking berries and you’ll have a lot of berries, which can then be used for another goal. Games also currently tend towards a ‘sandbox’ structure, where the player is dropped into a large world and allowed to traverse it more or less at their leisure. Discovery and longevity are at a premium, though this is a cultural trend and will eventually change. Online games, in which players from all around the world compete, are a good bet for what will define the future of the medium.
In short, typical gaming behavior is more likely to be searching a large environment or performing a repetitive task for gradual rewards than storming through a level for a high score. The latter games do exist, most popularly on mobile devices, but they now feel anachronistic in writing.
It’s dangerous to go alone
You can have a lot of fun experimenting with video game and literary narratives. After all, both forms lend themselves well to narrative play; just as writers such as David Foster Wallace and Robert Coover crafted stories purely around formal tricks and conceits, so too are whole video games built around clever and vaguely meta formal gimmicks. As Tony Tulathimutte pointed out in his excellent interview for Electric Lit, Sam Barlow’s critically acclaimed detective game Her Story is
basically Database Search: The Game, but it’s fun and well written. To analogize with literature, there are plenty of stories whose premise comes from its formal conceit. My favorite is ‘Going for a Beer’ by Robert Coover. He takes a simple sentence gimmick – where two things that happen at different times are written as though they’re simultaneous – and it becomes the conceit of the story.
– Tony Tulathimutte
The path of literary/video game crossovers is mostly unexplored but fertile. For every pitfall (and there are many: an overemphasis on nostalgia, trying to adopt point-scoring or level-complete dynamics, trying to split your book into action/cut-scene structures), there’s a rich and untapped seam to dig into. Drawing from new and emerging media has always been the approach for experimental artists and writers, and video games aren’t just for fringe nerds any more. Go forth, find meaning in this young medium, and bring its lesson and structures into your own written work. The union will, I’m sure, be fruitful.
For more great advice related to this topic, check out Do YOU Need To Write In The Second Person? and Want A Cult Following? Hide Secrets In Your Writing. Or, if you have questions about writing games in your fiction, let me know in the comments.