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What Video Games Can Teach You About Storytelling

By Hartwig HKD via Flickr’s CC

Please welcome Fred Johnson [1] as our guest today. Fred is an editor for Standout Books [2], where he helps authors take their manuscripts from good to perfect. He also writes fiction and poetry. You can follow Standout Books on Twitter [3].

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 [4] 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 [5]… and has been read as an allegory for overcoming depression [6] and, conversely, for the futility of human endeavour. How does it manage this?

Well, partly through its vagueness. Dark Souls allows the player only peeks into its rich lore, and it’s up to the player to stitch these snippets together. As such, finding meaning among the clues becomes a subjective and highly personalized experience that each player will have their own opinions on, just as they had their own unique experience playing through the game…

And this leads me to Dark Souls’ greatest strength and to the lesson that writers can take away. Everything in Dark Souls comes together to complement everything else—the gameplay encourages the same kind of thoughtfulness and patience that the storytelling requires (it’s known for its difficulty, and severely punishes rash or unconsidered moves); the fragmented nature of the plot reflects the central themes of existential anxiety, human compulsion, and confusion; the themes complement the decentralized player character, who, unlike so many protagonists in fictional media (and especially in video games), is not at the centre of the world, or even of the plot. And, to complete the circle, because that plot is not forced upon the player, the world feels real, living, as if it would continue to exist even if the player was not present (which in turn points back to the game’s central themes).

Dark Souls is a lesson in how to craft a world that feels like it’s not reliant upon the plot occurring within it. It is also a lesson in how the various aspects of a narrative can come together to complement one another and render a text utterly cohesive.

One book that achieves a similar feat is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel about (among other things) addiction, the empty dangers of entertainment, and the total noise of modern life. Wallace’s anti-entertainment message is reflected in how the book breaks up the flow of the narrative by constantly sending the reader to the back of the book to check endnotes and in how it structures its multiple plotlines in a way that rejects the standard three- or five-act structures of simpler narratives. Similarly, its preoccupation with the deafening noise of modern life is reflected in its ultra-long sentences, its interest in seemingly unremarkable ephemera, and its thousand-plus pages. It comes together, like Dark Souls, as a work of incredible purity.

INSIDE (2016)

The most recent game on my list, INSIDE [7] is a dark, obtuse, and incredibly effective side-scrolling game that does corporate dystopia better than any other piece of visual media I’ve consumed. You play as an unnamed and literally faceless boy moving through various strange-yet-familiar environments toward a mysterious, unnamed objective.

Like Dark Souls, INSIDE works so well because of its incredible sense of restraint. It is the writer’s litany “Show, don’t tell” made manifest. There’s no dialogue in INSIDE, no cutscenes, no pauses between sections; its exposition is in the movement, action, and the incredibly realized world [8] around you.

The game begins when your boy tumbles down a bank in a night-time forest. You quickly learn through the world around you that you’re running from something—cars pull up in the background and men in uniforms with chained dogs scan the dark trees. Searchlights flicker into life and trace your shadow through the wilderness. There are signs of decay and danger all around—police tape in the distance, broken sewage pipes leaking filth into the forest, an abandoned fridge, barbed-wire fences…

Every detail is doing something. There’s nothing thrown in haphazardly, there’s no filler—everything is there for a reason. It all contributes to the narrative and the crushing atmosphere the player feels with every step. Your book should be doing the same thing—no words wasted, nothing happening that you can’t justify, every detail either aiding in world building or establishing mood.

Similarly, INSIDE shows us that every aspect of your world should make sense. There can be no convenient escape hatches, no random Prince Charming—it must be possible to take the story seriously. Without this—if, for example, your action hero finds ammunition in a classroom, or your wizard finds a scroll of teleportation just when he’s cornered by a cave troll—you lose your living, breathing, and consistent world, as well as your reader’s respect [9].

INSIDE’s world is, through its immaculate construction and faceless player-character, the game’s main character. Like Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, Cather’s Nebraska, Orwell’s Airstrip One, and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, INSIDE’s vague and terrifying world—so full of unknowable systems, bureaucratic atrocities, and fatal decay—speaks. It’s an incredibly compelling setting, and its terror is engaging—it draws the player in.

Make your story’s world equally compelling—know what information to give and what to withhold, and realize that how much you reveal of a place or character defines how the reader will experience them.

The Last of Us (2013)

On paper, The Last of Us [10] sounds like fairly standard post-apocalyptic fare: there are not-quite-zombies in the form of victims of the cordyceps brain infection (a fungal plague that turns people into blind, mindless, and plant-like fungus-people who attack on sight); a rugged, flawed, and likeably gruff protagonist; and an all-American wasteland characterised by overgrown cities, bandit-controlled urban districts, and a return to nature on a grand and beautiful scale.

Where The Last of Us’s real story lies is in the relationship Joel, the aforementioned gruff protagonist, forms with Ellie, a teenage girl Joel is paid to smuggle from Boston to Salt Lake City. Just like the father and son’s kinship in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Joel and Ellie’s relationship is complex, flawed, lovely, and utterly human.

Joel’s bitterness, his long and terrible suffering, and his wounded (and perhaps irrecoverable) humanity are played off against Ellie’s youthful innocence, which itself is seen to decay and darken from scene to scene. It’s a forged father-daughter relationship under terrible strain.

The game’s tone is another thing to pay attention to—The Last of Us oscillates between moments of absolute savagery (Joel and Ellie are frequently forced to fight tooth-and-nail against other survivors) and moments of rare serenity and beauty, which themselves point to another thing The Last of Us does incredibly well: scope.

By scope, I mean how close we are to the action at any particular time. The Last of Us borrows from movies and zooms the camera in on harrowing or tense moments to create a claustrophobic, hectic atmosphere where every neck-snap, plank-hit, and gunshot shakes the screen. In moments of calm, the camera pulls out and pans over the strange beauty of, for example, the overgrown and sun-bathed Salt Lake City, where escaped zoo giraffes wander through the empty streets.

Knowing when to “zoom in” on details and action and when to pull back and lay out a broad scene is something that is important for writers to know—it’s a technique that subtly establishes and emphasizes a change of pace.

Similarly, The Last of Us at certain points affirms a scene’s weight and a character’s sudden vulnerability by shifting perspectives. During one particularly harrowing section, Joel is injured and Ellie has to go out on her own to find food and supplies. This is the first time the player has switched over from Joel, and it’s a real shock—the player suddenly feels as if the world is looming up around them. Enemies Joel could have taken on with ease take on terrible new menace, and actions Joel’s superior size and strength allowed are no longer possible.

A shift in perspective can change how a fictional world and its characters appear to the reader—this method is relied upon by George R.R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I’d argue that no transition in those books altered the lens we see the world through as effectively as in The Last of Us.

A final lesson from The Last of Us comes simply from the story it tells. It sets firm boundaries, chooses a narrow focus, and it does it extremely well. The story flouts expected narrative patterns in its final moments (I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s shocking and brilliant), and the assumptions we’ve made about who Joel and Ellie are as people are blown apart. I’ll leave you with this quotation from Adam Frank’s article for NPR on why video games matter [11]:

“The game convinces us that, as players, Joel’s story is our story. Instead, we find that we never really understood this man. We never understood the toll his survival had taken on him.”

How’s that for a narrative hook?

Do you derive lessons on storytelling from unique places? Which other games do you think tell their stories in interesting ways? Can you think of any other texts that are as “pure” as Dark Souls and Infinite Jest