Stephen King says that the only two things you have to do to become a writer are to write and read a lot. Although I agree wholeheartedly, I think King overlooks how playing video games can make you a better writer. This is understandable, because he gave up playing video games when the Atari 2600 was the gaming system of choice for households across the U.S., so please don't think I'm judging King for leaving an entertainment medium out of his wonderful book, On Writing.
I only bring this up because I think we should dispense with the myth that only bookish things can help create good fiction. Plenty of things can inform your stories and make you a better writer. Herman Melville worked on a whaling ship before he wrote Moby-Dick. Haruki Murakami likes to run marathons. And Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing."
In order to talk about how video games make you a better writer, we need to touch briefly on the evolution of story in video games. The mid-1980s gave birth to four titles that would change the video game landscape: Dragon's Lair, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy. Three of the four would launch premier game franchises and enjoy immense success for the next 30 years and beyond, but those varied titles — a role-playing game (RPG), a platformer, an action-adventure game, and a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) — did something much more important: they proved that video games could carry strong, compelling narratives.*
Until Dragon's Lair hit arcades in 1983, video games were largely storyless. Breakout! and Space Invaders had nominal storylines — tunneling out of a multicolored prison and stopping an alien invasion — but lacked the character development and personality that made animator Don Bluth's fantasy game so entertaining.
Dragon's Lair may have started the fire, but it didn't exactly burn the house down. Video games continued to ignore narrative in favor of fun gameplay, and those that attempted to implement some sort of plotline often failed spectacularly. (I'm looking at you, E.T.) The spark had set something alight, however, and Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy would soon break down the barrier between fun gameplay and entertaining narrative, clearing the path for video game ~experiences~ like Chrono Trigger, Metal Gear Solid, and Bioshock.
That's why I'm continually amazed when writers tell me that they don't play video games, ever, and that they think to do so constitutes a waste of time on their part. They have a point, to be sure; any time you spend doing anything else could be spent writing. But if all you do is write, then you're consuming only your own words and no one else's. You're living in an echo chamber of the most dreadful design, and you cannot hope to grow as a writer if you put yourself and your work into a vacuum.
In On Writing, King relies heavily on his "writer's toolbox" metaphor. Essentially, every writer has an organized pile of resources that they can draw from in order to make good art. Famously, King writes:
If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
That's absolutely true, and like reading, playing story-driven video games can sharpen the resources in your writer's toolbox: showing you what works, what doesn't, which stories have been done to death, and which clichés can be salvaged with a little ingenuity.
But video games, as great as they are, will never replace books in the toolbox of an aspiring novelist, if only for the simple fact that game narratives aren't read in black and white. Yes, you or I can summarize our favorite video game storylines in words, but we did not experience those games in words. So, although we can absolutely pick apart video game plots to understand how they work, and to learn how to make our own plots better, video games cannot teach us how to craft a particularly fine narrative sentence.
Please don't think I'm suggesting that video games are monolithic experiences. They aren't. And although video games cannot provide the kind of writing enrichment that a great novel — or a good writing book — holds in store, they can absolutely make you a writer with better ideas, stories, and plot twists. Here's how.
Note: This article contains potential spoilers for Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bioshock, Chrono Cross, Portal, and Undertale. You have been warned.
1. Video Games Make You Aware of Clichés and Plotholes
When I was in high school, my best friends and I were determined to make our own JRPG-style games, whether we made any money in the process or not. We wrote plotlines and backstories, drew character sketches, and made sure our heroes' conflicts and goals were clearly defined and understandable. Occasionally, we would challenge one another to come up with a story, character, or boss that broke out of the mold in some way, and that's where things really got interesting.
You see, video games, like any other form of media, have their own collection of overused tropes, to the extent that you have to work really effing hard to find something new under the sun. Thankfully, we had the Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Clichés, which consisted of 192 ubiquitous traits found in JRPGs, and which we were constantly aspiring to defy. After all, with a complete list of video game tropes to avoid, making our own, totally original games should be super-easy, right?
Wrong. Turns out, a lot of those RPG clichés are overused for a reason: they make your game better. Take the Local Control Rule, for example:
Unless a game scales all enemy levels to your party or hero's level, this is absolutely, 100 percent true. And although you can easily explain this strange phenomenon away by saying that the first city is poor, inaccessible, or otherwise incapable of hiring higher-leveled mercs — or by making your heroes and NPCs so self-aware that they nearly break the fourth wall to talk about their inadequacies — it's frankly a lot more simple to just let sleeping dogs lie and accept this video game cliché for what it is: a boon to your poor, strained, game developer's psyche.
What does all this have to do with writing fiction? Well, many video game tropes are found in novels as well. Here are two entries from the Grand List, both of which are obvious favorites of some of the best and brightest fantasy and science fiction writers:
You know these rules, even without knowing that you know them, because you've seen them used in so many speculative fiction novels. George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Frank and Brian Herbert, J.K. Rowling — Pick a big name in fantasy or science fiction, and I'll guarantee that that author has used one of these so-called "clichés" in their writing. Does that make them bad writers? Absolutely not.
See, tropes like the Nostradamus Rule and the Little Nemo Law make sense to use, because of something called The Law of Conservation of Detail, which pretty much boils down to one very important observance: don't waste your audience's time. Yes, you can — and should! — throw a Red Herring or two their way, but don't load them down with cumbersome prophecies, visions, and dreams that aren't going to be relevant to your story, because those are all just unnecessary filler.
Obviously, these rules can be subverted in a number of ways. You can have a character driven by a prophecy that turns out to be totally false, and use that realization as a catalyst for character development. You can have someone do terrible things in the name of a vision that's nothing more than a mere nightmare.
What you can't do — at least, not easily — is avoid these tropes altogether. If you're writing about some kind of vision or prophetic dream, it cannot be unnecessary fluff whose sole purpose is to fill a chapter. If it's going in your novel, it needs a reason to be there.
2. Video Games Help You Understand Emotional Manipulation
Have you ever heard the story of the Weighted Companion Cube?
In a little video game called Portal, you control a protagonist, Chell, who is put through a gauntlet of physics test chambers by an off-the-rails AI called GLaDOS. As taskmasters go, GLaDOS is a harsh mistress, and she consistently berates you with creative insults like "Science has now validated your birth mother's decision to abandon you on a doorstep," and "Well done. Here come the test results: 'You are a horrible person.' That's what it says. We weren't even testing for that."
Eventually, because Aperture Science testing chambers have lasers and high energy pellets and about 1,000 other ways to die, GLaDOS provides you with a Weighted Companion Cube, a gray and white box emblazoned with a pink heart, to help you through Chamber 17. Like other cubes you've encountered in the game, the Companion Cube can hold open doors, deflect lasers, and otherwise save your hide. Throughout Test Chamber 17, GLaDOS encourages you to bond with the Weighted Companion Cube, and you discover evidence that other test subjects have fallen in love with their cubes, which isn't all that surprising, given GLaDOS' penchant for verbal abuse.
However, when you arrive at the end of the testing exercise, GLaDOS forces you to "euthanize" your Weighted Companion Cube by throwing it into an incinerator. There is no way to avoid this, and GLaDOS' voice-over casts doubt on whether or not the Companion Cube is neither sentient nor capable of feeling pain. No matter how long it takes you to work up the mettle to incinerate your Weighted Companion Cube, GLaDOS will tell you, "You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations."
Similar to the incineration of the Weight Companion Cube is the death of Toriel: the protagonist's first friend in Undertale. After awakening in a hostile Underground full of monsters, a human child encounters a flower named Flowey who promises to help them through the ruins. When Flowey turns vicious and attempts to kill you, a large, friendly monster named Toriel steps in to save your life.
After fending off Flowey, Toriel takes you to her house, where she promises to raise you as her own child. When you express your desire to leave Toriel, she grows angry, and decides to prove that you are not strong enough to fend for yourself in the Underground. A battle ensues.
Now, here's the thing about Undertale. Unlike other video games, this indie title does not require you to kill anything in order to progress. You can spare virtually every hostile creature in the game, Toriel included. But, this early in the game, it's unlikely that first-time players will know that Toriel can be spared, and so many Undertale players, myself included, live with the guilt of killing our first-ever monster friend.
(Also, Undertale does not forget that you've killed Toriel, even if you reload your save. So, when I say "live with the guilt," trust me: I mean it.)
How does going through these nightmare levels of psychological torture help you become a better writer? Because of a little thing called emotional manipulation. As a writer, you have to know how to draw out emotions in your readers. Your audience won't feel emotionally connected to your protagonist, antagonist, or secondary characters just because that's what you expect them to do. They need a reason to catch all the feels, and it falls to you to provide that reason.
Anyone who has put a tear-jerking scene through a fiction workshop can tell you that it's super-difficult to bring out real emotion in your readers. Fail to provide your audience with a reason to connect with the characters in your story, and they won't feel a thing. Try to strong-arm your way through the process, and your reader will sense your desperation, maybe even feel abused by it. Play enough video games, and you'll figure out where the emotional-manipulation sweet spot lies.
3. Video Games Show You How to Play with Myths and Symbols
Much ink has been spent detailing the ways in which J.K. Rowling brought the fantastical figures of ancient lore into her modern-day wizarding world, but the Harry Potter series is just one of many fiction franchises to implement old stories in new ways. And although Rowling made good use of centaurs, dragons, pixies, and other fantastic beasts, she didn't exactly reinvent the wheel with them, instead choosing to stick very closely to tales of old.
Writers needn't be concerned with adhering to myths and legends that have been done to death, however, and can largely ignore the ire of purists who insist that some things should never change. Because it can be quite difficult to reimagine the stories we've known our entire lives, playing video games can help you see all the myriad ways to play with symbols.
Take Final Fantasy, for example. This long-running video game franchise has drawn from a number of legends over the years, including Ragnarok and the Norse Eddas, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Irish folklore, the Kabbalah, and Arabic myths.
Sometimes, when a familiar name appears in a Final Fantasy game, it's pretty much a 1:1 translation. This is the case with Final Fantasy XIII, in which Lightning's Eidolon, Odin, can take the form of a horse that the heroine may ride into battle. In the Norse Eddas, Odin's steed was an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir.
Over time, SquareEnix's blockbuster game franchise has created its own mythos, even though most of the titles remain unconnected. The chocobo — a giant bird capable of being ridden like a horse — has been reimagined countless times, as names like Cid, Gilgamesh, Garland, Terra, and Highwind have been bestowed upon different playable characters, bosses, summons, NPCs, and even inanimate objects and planets.
Before you dive headfirst into the task of supplying your own invented world with a hearty mythology and symbol system, allow me to offer one caveat. Although there are plenty of myths and legends out there that are fair game — such as those from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Norse, and the Celts — keep in mind that there are places where many "old" gods and spirits are still actively, devotedly worshiped, and that even the most ancient stories may have deep ties to certain cultures, locations, and events. If you're going to use a legend or icon from a culture other than your own, do plenty of research before you publish.
4. Video Games Teach You How Scenes Should Progress
One of my all-time favorite video game scenes comes from Batman: Arkham Asylum. You, playing as the Dark Knight himself, are exploring the Arkham Mansion's library when suddenly... you're in Wayne Manor? It quickly becomes clear that something very odd is happening to the Bat, aside from being unexpectedly teleported miles across Gotham to his home.
You turn the corner and find yourself in an endless hallway. It rains indoors. Puddles, overturned trash cans, and litter line the corridor. You hear voices that belong to your dead parents — their last words. Lightning flashes, and you're no longer Batman, but little Bruce Wayne, standing over your mother and father's corpses. You move on, now hearing the voice of Commissioner Gordon, comforting you. Another corner, an opened door, and you're back to being Batman, ready to face off in your second encounter with Scarecrow.
That the player has met Scarecrow once already by this point in Arkham Asylum does not detract from the impact of this scene, nor does the fact that Scarecrow uses the memory of the dead Thomas and Martha Wayne to terrorize Batman in their first — admittedly creepier — encounter. The hallway sequence isn't compelling because you think you've somehow wound up in Batman's home, or because you don't know what's going on; the further off-kilter the scene goes, the more certain you become that, yes, you're going to meet Scarecrow again. Because you know what's going on, you can sit back and enjoy the little things: how the hallway stretches out before you, how the lights grow dimmer and the environmental effects come on stronger, how the camera angle becomes more and more skewed.
Something similar, although a lot less unsettling, happens near the beginning of Chrono Cross. As the game's 17-year-old protagonist, Serge, you head down to the beach to meet up with your childhood friend Leena. She's just about to confess her love for you when you hear someone else calling your name from somewhere nearby. You look around, but Leena is the only other person on the beach.
Suddenly, you spot a tidal wave about to crash on top of you. You have a flashback to your childhood, in which you were playing in the water nearby, and a magical force surrounds you just before the wave hits the sand, leaving you passed out in its wake.
When you awaken, Leena is gone, so you head back to your village, presumably to tell her off for leaving you where you might have drowned. The enemies you spot on the way back aren't the same kind of monsters you fought before, and that's just the beginning. The little fishing town is quite different from the way you left it. Your mother is nowhere to be found, and Leena has no idea who you are. In fact, she thinks you're quite mean for saying you have the same name as her childhood friend who died tragically at the beach all those years ago...
You see where this is going. As it turned out, Serge had a 50-50 chance of surviving his childhood accident, and so reality split, creating two parallel worlds: Home World, in which he is alive, and Another World, in which he is now trapped. For a late-Nineties fantasy game, Chrono Cross does some really fantastic, if basic, play with quantum mechanics, which I won't go too in-depth with here. Suffice it to say, everyone's life would be radically different without Serge around, and Clarence, Clarence, he wants to live again.
The gradual transitioning technique used in both of these scenes bears a striking resemblance to a tactic King employed in his 1977 novel, The Shining. That book stands out as one of my favorite horror stories of all time, because of one simple thing: everyone in the audience knows that Jack Torrance is being driven to violent insanity, but he does not. We see what he sees and what he cannot.
Jack has more than a few run-ins with the haunted Overlook Hotel, but he often fails to realize that reality as he knows it is warping around him. At one point, a cloth fire hose on the wall comes unspooled and begins following him down a hallway like a snake. In another incident, an entire topiary garden moves around him, without his notice. Either Jack's perception is more than a bit off, or something is very, very wrong at the Overlook Hotel, and it's possible to reach the end of the novel and be entirely uncertain as to whether or not the events occurred as you read them, meaning Jack has been essentially possessed by evil ghosts, or if he merely went mad from the confinement and his alcoholism.
In any case, scenes like these cannot work if you tell your readers everything. Writing "The topiary changed positions while he wasn't looking" is a lot like saying "This says 'Wayne Manor' but it's really the Scarecrow but let's play along, OK?" It doesn't work, and it underestimates the mental load your reader is capable of bearing. The trick to writing well is to be able to show instead of tell, to have readers understand what you mean, without you saying what you mean. To learn how to do that, you can do three things: read great books, watch great movies, and play great video games.
5. Great Video Games Have Great Plot Rhythm
Ahhh, Bioshock. I've been waiting this whole article to talk about this game, so would you kindly pull up a chair and listen to what I have to say? Thank you.
Bioshock opens with a fiery plane crash on the open ocean, thankfully near a lighthouse that's equipped with a convenient bathysphere station, which you take to dock in an underwater city called Rapture. As soon as you arrive, a man named Atlas comes over the radio to ask for your help in rescuing his wife and baby boy from Andrew Ryan, Rapture's "madman" creator.
As you make your way through the city, you learn a lot about Rapture by listening to collectible voice recordings found throughout the game. Set up as a libertarian paradise in the vein of Ayn Rand, the city quickly descended into chaos. Tenenbaum, a woman who formerly worked for the Nazis, helped to turn little girls into corpse-scavenging monsters. Her research eventually led to a new trend in which everyone wanted to splice their DNA to give themselves magic abilities. After Tenenbaum's business partner, Frank Fontaine was killed, Ryan took over his business, gaining a monopoly on Rapture's genetic enhancements. Given that Rapture was a place where so-called "creatives" could ply their trades without interference, all of this was — and still is — legal.
However, unchecked splicing and social unrest have left the city in ruins, with many of its denizens trapped. This is what Atlas hoped to rescue his family from, but the submarine, in which his wife and child are trapped, blows up shortly after you find it. With his wife and child dead at Ryan's hand, Atlas changes his — and, by extension, your — mission: to kill Andrew Ryan.
As you grow close to Ryan, you realize that he may very well be a monster. He impregnated a young exotic dancer, only to later murder her when he learned that she had plotted against him with Fontaine, who purchased the embryo in order to break Ryan's control of the city, much of which was linked to his DNA. Fontaine, Tenenbaum, and a doctor, Yi Suchong, secreted away the child — Jack — and raised him together, with Ryan realizing only too late that their little experiment was his only son. Jack has been programmed to follow any command, no matter how awful, so long as it is coupled with a single, simple phrase: Would you kindly?
When you finally meet Ryan, he's already set Rapture's core control to self-destruct, and is enjoying a nice round of golf practice as the city shuts down around him. Safe from you for now, Ryan begins one of the most wonderful monologues in video game history:
And now you realize that every order Atlas has given you thus far has been preceded or followed by those three words: would you kindly?
You are Jack. You are Andrew Ryan's son, sent to kill him, and Ryan knows this.
After giving you a few simple commands — sit, stand, run — Ryan tells you again that a man chooses and a slave obeys. He hands you his golf club, and says, "Kill, would you kindly?" And you do. You cave in Ryan's — your father's — head with his own golf club, while he screams, "A man chooses; a slave obeys!"
His skull is still spurting blood as Atlas comes over the radio, tells you to "grab Ryan's genetic key, and would you kindly" use it to stop Rapture from self-destructing. Once you've done that, Bioshock's twist comes to a close as Atlas, the leader of Rapture's populist uprising and your guide through the undersea city thus far, reveals himself to be none other than Frank Fontaine, the man who bought you from your mother and programmed you to be his key to overtaking Rapture from your father.
I've played through the game a half-dozen times or so, and I don't remember anything about Bioshock so clearly as Ryan's gory face sputtering "A man chooses; a slave obeys!" as I bludgeon him to death. I have few video gaming memories as intense as the moment I texted my then-best friend — and now boyfriend, who had played through the game already, and who knew I was playing through it at that moment — "WOULD YOU KINDLY." Bioshock had its hooks in me as soon as I first set eyes on Rapture, but the Jack Ryan twist is what keeps me coming back.
Now, Bioshock doesn't end there. Obviously, you spend the rest of the game trying to beat your programming and get out of Rapture alive, which means hunting down Fontaine and destroying him. And you've already played through a significant portion of the game before you learn the truth about who you are. It's not just the magnitude of the twist, but where it falls in the overall story arc, that makes Bioshock's plot so fantastic.
The same can be said of novels with great plots. Look at Fight Club, Gone Girl, Mystic River, The Girl on the Train — I could go on. These are the books readers come back to time and again, and the men and women who wrote them have one thing in common: a knack for writing books with absolutely perfect pacing.
We've all read books with bad pacing. Whether the story begins 40 pages too early or 10 too late, it doesn't take much to ruin a great concept with terrible execution. But the ability to recognize poor pace in another person's writing doesn't guarantee you'll see it in your own. I've been in plenty of workshop sessions where writers assured their audience that, yes, that 3-page paragraph about goldfish eggs was essential to the plot of their novel and could not be excised or trimmed down in any way.
Sometimes, as writers, we get too caught up in the way our words sound to be able to tell whether or not what we've written is of any benefit to the reader. This is why King says to "[k]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings." Those "darlings" are the long, twisted passages that are meaningless to everyone but you.
That's where playing video games can benefit you the most as a writer. Most video games — sorry, Zork — don't rely on prose to move their stories forward. Dialogue, sure — and that, incidentally, can make or break a video game or a novel — but not pages and pages of text describing the characters' every move.
Instead, video games rely on pure pacing: go to this room, meet this guy, rest in this bed, fight this boss, make this choice, make that choice, learn these skills, fight this bigger boss — you see where I'm going with this.
This is scene progression writ large. Whether you're designing a video game or writing your Great American Novel, you have to write a good scene, and then another, and another, and then you have to make sure that those scenes flow, from one to the next, in some sort of pleasing and/or meaningful pattern.
I'm not saying that playing video games makes writing books easier. If it did, I'd be outselling James Patterson right now, believe me. But video games help you to think about the craft from a place beyond the word-sentence-paragraph box. They won't make you a better writer overnight, but they will give you a broader perspective on the creative possibilities that lie at your fingertips.
* Note: Although these titles proved that narrative-based gaming was possible, first-person shooter (FPS) games remained largely immune to this breakthrough until 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved. With that being said, we would not have Halo — or any other contemporary, story-based video game franchise — without those early releases.