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 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.
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?