Please welcome Fred Johnson as our guest today. Fred is an editor for Standout Books, where he helps authors take their manuscripts from good to perfect. He also writes fiction and poetry. You can follow Standout Books on Twitter.
I’ve long been interested in how video games are maturing as a medium—as a form, games are still very young (having existed for only a few decades) and have long been dismissed as juvenile entertainment. In the past few years though, this has changed—Team Ico paved the way with early PS2 titles Ico and Shadow of the Colossus for an early wave of indie “art games” such as Dear Esther, Braid, and The Stanley Parable. As a student trying to concile my love for books and narrative with my love for wasting time in front of games consoles, art games were the middle ground I’d been begging for. It’s a good time to be into video games: the medium is maturing with its audience, and is becoming more varied in the topics it approaches.
What Video Games Can Teach You About Storytelling
It wasn’t so long ago that the venerable and brilliant film critic Roger Ebert condemned video games as something that could never be art. His reasoning was that video games must be won—they’re competitive, points-based, and are… well, games.
Here, if nowhere else, Ebert was wrong. Games don’t have to be about levelling up, shooting bad guys, or amassing points—sometimes, they’re simply interactive experiences, and can tell incredible stories in a way that no other medium can.
Such games can teach us creatives a thing or two about how great storytelling relies on exploiting the medium you’re working with. Just as games rely on sound, vision, and interactivity, books rely on words arranged in a linear order. Writers don’t often think about how they can get the best from this limited form, but they should.
I’m going to look at three video games released in the past decade that I think have told their stories using innovative, unique, and startlingly effective methods that often rely on the kind of emergent, player-driven storytelling only possible in games. From there, I’m going to extract and distil any lessons that I think writers will find useful in crafting written stories.
So, without further ado:
Dark Souls (2011)
On the surface, Dark Souls looks like any other fantasy role-playing game. There are knights in armour, big monsters, fey women talking about prophecies… But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll uncover a fragmented, vague narrative that must be pieced together by the player. In this sense, the player is more of an archaeologist than a reader, tasked with piecing together clues to learn what your character’s role is in the game’s melancholic world.
As the name suggests, it’s a dark game, but it’s also remarkably intelligent. It explores some heavy themes: human frailty, nihilism, Nietzschean existentialism… and has been read as an allegory for overcoming depression and, conversely, for the futility of human endeavour. How does it manage this?