Computer Games Teach Lessons In Writing

December 1, 2009 at 5:11 am (Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , )


I admit that I love playing RPG’s.  They are my favourite type of game (probably because they don’t really require me to be able to aim or react quickly, they just require patience and time to level up the character so that they can aim and react quickly).  Recently I’ve noticed a trend in reviews for computer games that has interested me.  No longer is it just about whether the game is playable or fun the reviewers spend equal amounts of time criticising the narrative structure and the character motive for wanting to complete a level.  Admittedly, games have always tried to pretend there was some higher purpose to playing other than completing levels and racking up points (even Mario Bros filled in a lame story about a kidnapped Princess who, just as you reached her, was kidnapped again to make you keep playing), but it seems that the reviewers are now actively critiquing the sophistication of the story telling that is going on.  The main issues seem to be:

  • protagonists that stumble into the action for no apparent reason and then take on the hero role, again for no apparent reason
  • villains that are villainous for no reason other than to create a conflict
  • protagonists that are so incredibly dumb they make you ashamed to be controlling them
  • stories that are so complex and removed from game play they require cut scene after cut scene just to fill all the gaps in the story
  • side characters that are so poorly developed that they all have the same face and say the same stupid three lines everytime you pass them.

Now, if the point of playing games is to tell stories then yes, all of the above probably need to be addressed.  However, most gamers just want to get to the end. That is the point.  As long as there is fun to be had, mindless characters and lack of motive isn’t a real deterrent.  Worthless dialogue and intruding cut scenes on the other hand will make most players at least throw something at the screen, if not stop playing.

That said, I think there are lessons to be learnt about writing from playing these types of games.  I know I”ve learnt a lot about what I should not do as a writer from playing through many, many games.

  1. From Final Fantasy – Just because you have an ensemble cast does not mean you have to describe the back story of every single character in full and complete detail using flashbacks.  Yes, if you want the reader to care about the character you have to tell them something, but the reader is not going to appreciate 5-10 backstories particularly if it has little to do with the main plot.
  2. From Final Fantasy (no I’m not picking on it) – If the amazing, climatic battle sequence is less interesting then the three battle sequences before it, the ending is going to leave a sour taste in the mouth of the person reading the story, no matter how good it is as a climax.
  3. From Oblivion – If your character needs to find something and someone in a village knows where it is, do not have your protagonist speak to every single person in the village before finding that someone.  Listening to twenty variations of “I don’t know” and “why don’t you ask” can get very tiring.
  4. From Super Mario – Have an actual, believable goal.  Collecting mushrooms to grow may have worked in Alice in Wonderland but it doesn’t make for much of a goal and why are we collecting coins when they don’t really achieve anything, it isn’t as if he ever spends them.  Why is the plumber responsible for saving the Princess?  Shouldn’t she have guards?
  5. From Monkey Island – Your characters will need to develop skills.  However, dumping them on a path in the forest for several chapters, waiting to run into randoms who may or may not teach them something useful about sword fighting does not make for compelling reading (or playing either I might point out).
  6. From Beyond Good and Evil – Greed is a powerful motivator but it gets to a point where your character needs more motive than money to continue doing something dangerous and if she has already expressed a severe lack of concern for the situation it makes no sense for her to risk her life for money she no longer needs.

I should actually do a post on the good things video games can teach us about writing at some point but in the meantime, if you have any tips for writing that you gained while playing video games, please share them.

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14 Comments

  1. Margot Kinberg said,

    I’m not a fan of video games, but those lessons are really valuable for writing, and I’m glad that you shared them. As I read your lessons, the one thing that struck me was how important it is that the story be realistic and believable, and I think that’s a crucial part of good writing. Thanks for the lessons.

  2. Marvin D Wilson said,

    I’m knida old school and don’t really play video games, had never considered them as a means of learning about writing well – but you make a pretty good case, here!

    The Old Silly

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I like to learn lessons from everywhere – it at least justifies the hours spent. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Corra McFeydon said,

    Oh, I love playing Sims. It doesn’t teach me a thing about writing, but it does relax my mind so I can hum away on creativity while playing. I think it’s a bit like Crossword puzzles for the analytical folks; I do it as a means to percolate.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Possibly it teaches you about character creation or how to ruin someone’s life. Maybe how humans don’t interact? Still, computer games are nice and relaxing. Thanks for visiting.

  4. Carol Kilgore said,

    Great post. Especially about asking everyone in the village and not getting the answer until the end.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Believe me, I’ve done this in more than a few games. I don’t want to read about a protagonist doing this.

  5. levimontgomery said,

    “protagonists that stumble into the action for no apparent reason and then take on the hero role, again for no apparent reason”

    Isn’t that the plot of every western ever written?

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Quite possibly, though a few of the more modern western’s try to create some sort of motivation.

  6. J.C said,

    Great lessons to take away from games! There are some really wonderful stories to be found in some of the games around these days, things like Mass Effect and stuff, you can learn a lot about world building from games that’s for sure.

  7. Steve said,

    Cassandra – Great insights! While I’ve been out of the gaming scene for a while now, one company that use to do a fairly good job of integrating plot-line into their more recent games is id Software. They put out some pretty famous first-person shooter games like DOOM, QUAKE and WOLFENSTEIN. Those games seemed to integrate game-play with the overall plot line fairly well. Searching and finding new information as to where the story is taking you along with animated clips of dialog among some of the different characters in the story are all things that they throw into their games to try and immerse the player into the story. They seemed to have done so in a fairly balanced manner.

    The one downside to the games I mentioned is that while they have all these elements embedded into the game-play, they also try and make the user work and figure out stuff on what to do next or how to progress. This means a lot of trial and error on the users part such as visiting different locations multiple times and talking to almost every character in the game (as you mentioned in your 3rd point) – all in an effort to solve the “puzzle of the plot” and to enhance the “challenge” of the game.

    Unfortunately, it seems in the gaming world, it’s really tough to have a story that moves at an appropriate pace while having game-play elements that keep the user challenged while playing. Balancing the two would seems to be an art of it’s own.

    Enjoyed the post.

  8. jmartinlibrarian said,

    Great googly moogly. Finally, somebody admits that sometimes escapist fun is OK. Sometimes, I don’t need the backstory, I just need the here and now.

  9. Cassandra Jade said,

    Thanks all for the comments. Where have I heard “great googly moogly” before? It will come to me I am sure.

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