Video Games for Writers

Hello, imaginary friends, and welcome to my process blog.  Today, I’m going to write, believe it or not, about some good video games for writers to play.  Besides reading, obviously, video games are my primary source of entertainment.  This isn’t to speak ill of television or film, but to speak well of the VG media.  Video games are involving, challenging, entertaining, increasingly mature, and more daring than ever.  The better ones involve fully realized characters, involved (if sometimes needlessly complicated) plots, and an amazing sense of pace.  The best of them can even teach us something about the creative process–structure, story, and keeping the attention of the generally inattentive.

(As usual, I will throw in a writing prompt at the end.)

Without further ado, I will present my admittedly biased list of games that writers should play.

Alan Wake

Alan Wake makes the list in part because the main character is a writer, and because writing (and the creative process in general) is a key element of the plot.  Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.

Alan Wake also makes the list because it shows how media can be flexible, experimental, and still engaging and fun.  Alan Wake is a video game presented as a TV-esque episodic, the plot of which centers around a novel (and the creative process that produced said novel).  The game contains elements of all three media…and it doesn’t stop there!  It also plays with mixing and melding different genres. Mystery, horror, thriller, and action genres are all twined together throughout the gameplay and story.  The game is a wonderful example of story over structure.  It doesn’t care to adhere to any specific genre, any specific medium, any specific tropes or expectations–it mixes and matches with reckless abandon, and it’s a game that’s all the stronger for it.

A writer can take a lot away from that.  Alan Wake may primarily be an action/horror game, but it uses motifs and tropes from action/comedies, mystery thrillers, even buddy-cop movies.  It doesn’t force its story (or gameplay) into a media- or genre-specific toolbox, it just keeps opening more toolboxes.  You can do the same thing!  Write a Lovecraftian action-western!  If you run into a dead-end, open the pulp-noir toolbox and fish something out.  Another dead-end?  Open the buddy-cop toolbox.

Alan Wake also makes another important point: you can only pull all of this off if it’s still fun, if it’s still internally-consistent, and if you can keep your audience’s attention.  It does all of that, by the way.  It’s fun as hell.  I recommend playing it not only for its willingness to open all the toolboxes, but also because it’s a roaring good time.

The Stanley Parable

Sometimes, your characters will surprise you.  So it goes in The Stanley Parable, a fun little playable-essay on video game design, narrative structure, and the wild unpredictability of characters.

In The Stanley Parable, you play the role of Stanley.  Your time in the game is narrated by an exacting, well, narrator.  The narrator is trying to tell a story.  Unfortunately, you’re just as likely to work against the story as you are to work with it.  Since you’re the player, after all, you get to make the choices.

I think this is a remarkable game for several reasons.  First: it’s funny as hell.  Second: it’s a real hoot to play through.  Third: it captures, very well, the struggle a narrator can have with their characters.

As writers, we develop characters to be people.  We want them to be complex, to have depth and consciousness, to have contradictions and flaws.  We want them to be as human as possible.  And if we’ve done our job well, they will occasionally surprise us.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve written up an outline only to realize, halfway through, that one (or more) characters would never ever follow through with it.  They go ahead and do what makes sense for them and I’m left to scrap the outline and start again.  It’s very frustrating.

A very similar relationship evolves between Stanley and The Narrator.  As Stanley, you are the character.  Yes, you could do everything the narrator tells you to do.  It’s quite easy that way, actually.  But, ultimately, it feels sparse, boring, uninvolved.  You go through the motions without real meaning, rolling your eyes half the way, and the ending becomes a kind of mockery.

I won’t give away more.  It’s a playable and replayable game and I hope you give it a spin.

The lesson is this: well-designed characters will surprise you.  Don’t try to hammer them back into shape.  The more you try to force characters to fit your outline, the less human they will seem.  If you deprive your characters of agency, they become boring.  Readers want human characters.  Characters who make their own decisions (or seem to, at least).  Realistic characters with agency and contradictions and a sense of self!  So don’t fight them too much, or the whole thing will break down…

Spec Ops: The Line

In an action game, you expect to kill people.  You expect firefights and explosions and huge set pieces.  Fierce enemies, intense action sequences, and high-octane plot lines.  What you don’t expect?  Moral consequence.  Judgment.  Guilt.  Intellectual and emotional confusion.

Spec Ops: The Line is an action game that hates action games.  It’s a game that changed the way I thought about war.  And it’s a done-and-done-again adaptation of Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Spec Ops: The Line is lengthy and complicated.  It shocked me into doing research on veterans’ affairs, moral injury, PTSD, and the alarming ways in which we, as a nation, discard our returning soldiers.  It sounds shallow and awful and trite, but this game drove me to interview veterans, to read essays and forum posts, and to pore through articles and books.

It started when I shot a civilian in the middle of a heated, three-way firefight.  She was running through a maze of alleys and Walker (the POV character the player controls) had been harried from all sides by assailants.  I turned a corner, saw a figure charging at me, and reacted.  Then I watched as a woman screamed in pain, dropped to the ground, and died while clutching the wound in her stomach.  Before I had time to come to terms with what I’d done, someone else was already shooting at me.  I had to keep moving.

Things got worse from there.

But I won’t make this article about my The Line experience.  That could be an article in and of itself.  The point I want to make is this: this game changed my emotional response to the world around me.  I’d read Heart of Darkness and seen Apocalypse Now, but it was Spec Ops: The Line that dug its claws into my heart and tore it up.

Are you worried that you’re writing a story that’s been done before?  Don’t be.  Heart of Darkness has been adapted into at least two different films.  Its plot has been mirrored and paralleled in countless novels and novella.  There are callbacks to Heart of Darkness littered all through our media.  I’ve experienced plenty of them.  But this one hit me like a Mack truck.  So if you’re working on a project, and you’re worried it’s been done before…stop worrying.  You never know.  Yours might just be the one that changes someone’s life.

Metro 2033/Metro Last Light

Setting.  Setting is very important.  We’ll have a process blog entry on that point, soon enough.  But setting is also very difficult in storied sci-fi/fantasy settings–it has to be delivered without too much exposition.  Readers don’t want history lessons.  They don’t want long explanations.  They want more story.

The games (based on the Metro 2033 series of novels, which I own but have not read yet) do an incredible job with setting.  At one point in Last Light, an old, gray-haired man is doing shadow-puppets for a group of children.  As the show went on, the children stopped recognizing the animals.  Many of them were extinct.  The old man became exasperated, trying to explain beauty to people who had never seen it.  Eventually, he gives up and tells them to go home and come back the next day.

Most of the setting and world-detail of these games is provided by such events.  A slew of graffiti on a subway wall, a group of children chasing rats with sharp sticks.  A corpse found in the sewer with a hole in its head, an old gun clutched in its rotting hands.  A family who tries to kill you…and when you kill them, first, you find a chopped up corpse in their fridge.

You don’t really need to know the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of these things.  The ‘what’ is enough.  Nobody moans a history at you, nobody drunkenly recounts the long tale of the apocalypse.  Nobody needs to.  The tale is there to be seen.  And if there are strange creatures, unholy mutants, and desperate ghosts in the subway tunnels?  Of course there are.  The world has made it clear that this is not mankind’s kingdom any more.

Play this game because it does the best job of expressing setting and history of any game I’ve ever played.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange is one of the most heart-wrenching, emotional games I have ever played, and I have played a lot of games.

The main character of Life is Strange gets a special power: she can reverse time.  But while most games outfit you with an ability to go tangle with great forces and perform amazing feats, Life is Strange just puts you in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to navigate life.  The reverse-time ability doesn’t let you fight monsters, it just lets you make different decisions.  When you see a police officer harassing a young woman, what do you do?  (1) take a photo as evidence?, (2) intervene directly?, (3) ignore it?, (4) do any of the above, but then backtrack and investigate what really happened?  Each choice leads to a very different set of consequences, and reverse-time powers or not, you’ll have to choose one of them sooner or later.

There’s a lot to learn and unpack from Life is Strange.  There’s the fashion in which the player can rough-draft and brainstorm their decisions.  Or the way it uses magic realism and supernatural sci-fi to tell a deeply intimate story.  It does an excellent job of making small things seem huge and of creating a real, living world that these things happen in.  Life is Strange is, in my biased opinion, the most necessary game on this list.

But the most powerful lessons it has to offer are about character and consequence.  The entire game is character driven, a mess of people with tangled motivations and relationships, each of them complex and flawed and hurting and a little bit beautiful.  It’s a great lesson in giving depth and humanity to even the seemingly background characters.

It’s a greater lesson in the nature and gravity of consequence.  Super powered or not, Maxine Caulfield is still just a semi-normal person trying to navigate a semi-normal life.  And that’s what gives the game its emotional power.  Despite the seemingly magical abilities, we can’t foresee or prevent our actions from having consequence, sometimes to extreme effect.  We can’t be heroes, we can only do our best.  So it goes with a character in a story: their actions should have consequence.  Great consequence, unforeseen consequence, heartbreaking or affirming consequence.  Their actions, however small, make ripples in the world.

If you want to know more, play the game.

Writing Prompt

Write a story outline framed entirely as character choices.  Try a flow chart!  Open with a situation (“Zumi runs down a hallway until she reaches an intersection,” for instance) and then branch through the outline by following the protagonist’s choices.  (If she turns left, what happens?  If she turns right?  When the thing chasing her catches up, what if she fights?  What if she runs?  Etc.)  What happens to the story/outline when protagonist choice is the most important factor?

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My “Best Books of 2016” List

I’ll get this out of the way.  These are just books I read this year: a collection of fiction from various genres as well as a dash of non-fiction.  Were they published in 2016?  Likely not.  But they’re great books and they deserve more attention (and sales).  In any case, this is my list of the best books of 2016…insofar that I read them all in 2016.

 

#5: The Listeners, by Leni Zumas


The Listeners
contains some of my favorite prose from this year.  As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, “Zumas has razored into existence a beautiful grotesquery of the English language.”  It’s a tangled tale, a literary experiment, and a horrorshow of a ride.  It does occasionally veer into over-heightened prose, and the ending leaves something to be desired, but it’s a gorgeous work of sharp and painful art and worth every minute I spent reading it.

You can get it at Amazon.com and I recommend that you do.

 

#4: Ritualistic Human Sacrifice, by C. V. Hunt


C. V. Hunt continues to be one of my favorite authors of dark fiction.  Ritualistic Human Sacrifice is a great example of why: it’s a wild, insane ride that rushes by at a rollercoaster speed and has little regard for what is or isn’t socially acceptable.  It’s grotesque, horrific, and hilariously transgressive.  I was, by turns, laughing, grimacing, and shuddering.  Hunt has perfectly balanced horror with humor…provided you have a particularly dark and transgressive kind of humor.

Pick it up at Amazon.com and buckle up, because it’s a bumpy ride.

 

#3: Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, by A. J. Somerset


Non-fiction.  A moderate view of gun culture in the United States and Canada.  Arms is a dissection of cultural mores, historical trends, media, and even ballistic science–all in the service of trying to find sanity in a maddening debate.  Deeply informative and incredibly well-researched.

I always post links to buy things on Amazon.com because I assume that’s where the majority of people reading this will do their shopping.

 

#2: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle


Man…this was an amazing novella.  Just amazing.  Victor LaValle is an incredibly talented author.  He’s an amazing linguist, a dazzling player of the English instrument, with punched-up and tight-wound prose that is at once haltingly beautiful and rapid-fire.  If you haven’t read The Devil in Silver, for example, you should do that immediately.  In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle’s talent with prose is heightened and practiced and a perfect homage to Lovecraft’s work.  Where Lovecraft’s paragraphs tended to bloat, however, LaValle trims off all the fat and leaves nothing unnecessary.

I noticed, this past couple years, that there’s been a tremendous wave of cosmic horror authors trying to work to confront and combat Lovecraft’s misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism…of all these efforts, I believe LaValle’s was the most successful.

Purchase it on Amazon.com literally as soon as you can.

 

#1: The Nameless Dark, by T. E. Grau


T. E. Grau’s story collection The Nameless Dark is everything I like about cosmic horror and most things I like about fiction in general.  Grau’s prose is lyrical and rich and extremely readable.  The stories cross genres and time periods and Grau is easily at home in all of them, weaving haunting and sometimes horrifying tales with believable (if not necessarily always likable) characters and doing it all with some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve ever happened upon.  Thrilling, harrowing, and entrancing, these tales are worth a very close read.  Perhaps several.

Pick it up at Amazon.com.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link

Welcome to Nightvale
, by Joseph Fink

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Flash Fiction: Oceanrest Murder Confession

I did kill them, I’ll admit that.  I murdered them all, one at a time, using the curved, sharp edge of a seven inch blade.

But I didn’t write those words.

The blood wrote the words long ago, and I read them.  It was a sanguinary scripture.  Destiny scrawled out.

People used to read entrails and see the future in the guts–this was like that.  When I was a boy I looked up at the chalkboard and saw the blood dripping down the walls like runny jam.  The words were already there.  I saw the future in them, in their glistening shapes behind my teacher’s head.  I memorized them over days and weeks and never forgot what they said.  I knew the scripture forwards and backwards long before I ever contributed my hand to its diction.

You don’t seem to understand me.  To understand it.  You say that my fingerprints were found smudged in the gore, you say I chose to do it myself, taking their life from their throats and using my hand as a brush to paint my religion…I didn’t.  I am beginning a long standing prophecy.  You have to understand.  My actions, my subsequent arrest…this isn’t an ending.

This is a beginning.

I didn’t write the words.  The blood wrote the words for me, long ago.  I only read them.

The blood is still out there, writing.

Other people have read.

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Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, by C. V. Hunt

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Dark.  Grim.  Hilarious.

Misery and Death and Everything Depressing is a short story collection by C. V. Hunt, whose uncanny talent of weaving dark humor with bleak plots and tormented characters gives even the grimmest tale a smirk.  For horror fans, the stories The Quarry and No Room for a Child will surely satisfy, combining genre tropes with excellent characterization and strong descriptions.  More literary fans will find Human Contact as a strange, skin-crawling examination of isolation and loneliness in the modern age–similar to Last Woman on Earth, a meditation on the same with quite a different ending, though perhaps the weaker of the two stories.

The strongest story, however, is Baby Hater.  It holds the perfect combination of humor, extreme human behavior, and a plot that unfurls into a beautiful tapestry.  I couldn’t stop laughing, chuckles and full-on guffaws teased from my lips by a bleak, sadistic narrator who, as the title suggests, isn’t a fan of children.  Of course, who really is?  The story only gets more amusing and still darker as the narrator’s original plan begins to slide sideways, running right up to a very satisfying climax.

The first and last stories in the collection are, in my opinion, the weakest.  The punchline of the first (To Say Mother Teresa Was Shocked When She Woke Up In Hell Would Be An Understatement) falls a little flat, the title possibly being the strongest point of the piece.  The last story (The Last Entry) is fine, but compared to the rest of the stories in the piece seems like a poor choice to end on.

All in all, Misery and Death and Everything Depressing is a stellar collection of stories.  Baby Hater alone is worth the purchase.  I consider the other stories as bonus material at this price ($2.99 for the e-book as I write this).  If I’d known ahead of time how good these stories were going to be, I’d have shelled out the extra $7 for the paperback.  C. V. Hunt has created some amazing work, here.  You should buy it.

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The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

suprnatlhancmnt

This book was in my top 5 list before I even finished reading it.  The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero, is charming, creepy, thrilling, and amazingly well-crafted.  If you feel the need to continue reading my opinions and insights, by all means do, but I actually recommend leaving now and just picking up a copy.

The book is a haunted house book.  No, wait, that’s not quite right.  It’s a book about dreams and visions and pseudo-science and murder most foul, and it takes place in a haunted house.  Also, there’s a secret society.  There’s a number of plot threads and interesting asides woven into the tapestry of the novel, but somehow they never seem to confuse each other or run amok, instead falling into a balance and clarity that many authors would struggle to achieve between so many things.  Everything in the plot supports everything else.  It’s delightful.  By the turning of the last page, you’ll realize that none of it was accidental and all of it was necessary.  There’s no fat to be trimmed.  It all makes sense at the end.

But the plot isn’t the best reason to read the book.  The characters are much better.  The prime narrator, A., is a curious, studious gent with a smirking sense of humor who is one of the more lovable narrators I’ve read in some time.  Quite the stand-up guy, on the whole.  Niamh is an energetic, frenetic partner who, though mute, has rather a lot to say.  I was utterly charmed.  Rarely do I worry for characters in fictional works, which has proven utilitarian in the current climate of literature and television, in which even seemingly essential characters are pruned regularly…but these guys had me tensely clutching the book, white-knuckled, holding my breath and sending out a silent plea to the author “no!  Please don’t!” which I consider a tremendous statement to their strengths.

All of this is delivered through diary entries, letters, security camera feeds, a home video camera, excerpts of magazine articles, faxes, etc… throwing out usual narrative delivery for other modes.  At first this comes off as a little “gimmicky,” but after a couple pages I stopped noticing entirely.  Many reviewers have related the delivery to that of House of Leaves, but I wouldn’t make that comparison per se.  House of Leaves is more of a serious-minded work, firstly, and secondly it requires you to rotate and twist the book, to read things in mirrors, etc… whereas The Supernatural Enhancements asks only that you keep reading, and has about as many visual elements/illustrations as Nos4a2.  Maybe a couple more.  And though there are cryptograms, ciphers, and puzzles…all of them are entirely optional, and most are solved for you by the narrators.  Except for the very first one.

My final note on the book is also perhaps the most important: Edgar Cantero writes great prose.  It is a difficult task to try to meld the poetic dread of Lovecraft with the pacing demands of a modern novel, but Mr. Cantero pulls it off marvelously.  His word usage is brilliant.  His choice in descriptors, metaphors, etc… are amazing and occasionally even stunning.  The rhythm of the writing is entrancing.  In terms of sheer aesthetics, in terms of quality prose…I should use the word “astonishing.”  Read the book if for no other reason than to experience what Edgar Cantero can do with the English language.

Now go.  We’re done here.

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