Game time: Press F to pay respects4 min read

by | Jan 27, 2017 | Writing | 0 comments

I wouldn’t describe myself as a gamer.  I felt quite queasy with that weird grappling hook gun in Bioshock Infinite, and playing any game on my partner’s widescreen gaming PC gives me motion sickness.  Though I might score points for having a Steam account, I then lose them for mostly playing pigeon dating simulator games.  (Oh Hatoful Boyfriend, even I don’t know why you exist or why you bring me so much joy…)

But gaming is an industry that has been giving more and more thought to narrative in the last few decades.  So what can a video game do with narrative that fiction can’t?  And is there anything we can copy?

The biggest difference is the sense that, in gaming, the story really could go a different way.

Right from the beginning, in a game, you can get it wrong and die.  You can make decisions at the start that open up, or lock away, later elements of playable story.  You can exert influence.

With the novel, it’s right there in your hands and the text isn’t changing any time soon.  There may still be thrills and upsets, but there’s only one direction of travel.  (Unless you’re reading a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.  Those should make a comeback.)

Video games can also offer hugely populated worlds and a hundred side quests.  Something that can be tricky to build into even a long series of novels.

But unless we bring back the choose your own adventure format (which is an option guys) and set up larger worlds than Lord of the Rings we, as writers of novels, can’t do what the gaming industry can do.  We can play with alternative universes, we can scale up on characters, but it’s not quite the same thing.

This isn’t a call for us to all throw our notebooks in puddles and stomp on them in muddy wellies.  It isn’t a call for us to go write stories for game companies either (though, again, it’s an option).

What it is a call to do is to think about the paths your characters are choosing not to take.  Perhaps there’s even a call here for multi-plan plotting.  To actually work through what could happen if the characters took a different path and to check you’re not missing something absolutely thrilling.  What playable content are you shutting off in order to follow the plot line you have set?

It’s also a call to think about all of our minor characters.  In gaming those minor characters send you off on your side quests because they are dealing with obstinate missing goats, mutant trees or bizarre dancing sea monsters.  They have their own stories and their own frictions.  Each of your minor characters has their own messy, bizarre life going on, and that definitely is a lesson to remember as we write.

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