If you follow my Gaming Writer’s Saturday posts, you already know I love video games and share my time between writing and gaming (and few other things), but those two hobbies are not as separated from each other as one would think. I play video games whenever I feel uninspired or when I need to fuel my creativity, and in a way, video games are a part of my writing process. They might come before I even write the first word down, but they definitely contribute to my plotting, worldbuilding, and outlining (in one case, a game and its soundtrack inspired a whole novel). So when a friend asked in a writing group about video games, I couldn’t stay silent, and my response became the root of this post.
Then what can video games do for a writer?
Visually Rich Imagination Feed
Many games out there, even the indie ones, boast beautiful and mesmerizing graphics. They might not all be full 3D with realistically rendered backgrounds, but it doesn’t mean that artists’ imagery can’t be gripping. Some of the hand-painted 2D backgrounds or even item designs can catch your eye and provide inspiration to create new and exciting worlds or sneak in an idea for a story.
Admiring the graphic side of the game can also help to identify things that help to set the mood of a scene. What elements make it unique and what evokes specifics feelings about it? Translating those elements into descriptions in the story can enhance it and also replace those experiences we don’t have (after all, not all of us will have a chance of flying a balloon or climbing a high mountain, to give simple examples).
Trial and Error of Character Development
Most games offer save game and load game options which means that when something doesn’t go according to our wishes, we can reload the game and try again. It also gives us a chance to try different dialogue lines in interaction with the in-game characters, reminding of how various reactions can be depending on the words chosen, or even on such things as the character’s background or personality.
Remembering of multiple possible outcomes is something that writers can benefit from, and even though I rarely bother with reloading a game for a single dialogue, when it comes to writing, my brain constantly replays conversations between my characters, altering reactions and chosen words. This way I rarely settle for cliche, polishing my dialogue before it even makes it to the page. Sure, not all of them are brilliant, but I believe they are better this way.
On top of that, many games allow an in-depth analysis of the characters. Being immersed in the gameplay means we react to their words and actions which in return gives us the analysis material: what in that character triggered a response? Was it the words? Behavior? Tone of voice? Why the character we play reacted this way?
Sure, these questions sound like something every writer is already doing (or should be doing), but video games help to train such habit, sharpening the skill and pointing out towards the details to be on the lookout for. Games are meant to stir emotions and playing them can help to identify the tools used to entice certain feelings or reactions.
Complex Story Structure
Most of the games offer multiple plots woven together and many of them are something our character stumbles upon. They aren’t the effect of the character’s actions or passiveness, they happen whether the character gets involved or not (of course, the idea of the game is to be involved, but in most situation the player can still choose not to, for any reasons).
Getting familiar with such structure not only allows to add complexity to the world, but also reminds that not everything in the world revolves around the story’s main characters: sometimes they’re just spectators, judges, or accidental heroes. Adapting such situations for the written stories can help develop multiple-POV plots or add depth to the created world.
Language and Style
Many story and character-based games offer superb writing. The in-game texts aren’t written after hours by “that guy who codes the tree shadows”, but by professional writers who often have experience in both writing and video games. Thanks to them, the dialogue lines and description are often creative, engaging, and humorous (where applicable). Various characters use various styles, have their own quirks or expressions; some use slang or have heavy accent.
I never deny that my English wouldn’t be so good if I only learned it at school, and even though my friends sometimes forget I’m not a native speaker, I still discover a plethora of new words and expression, or interesting phrases within games. Of course, that’s something to be picked up from books, but games often offer one more thing: brevity. Reading on-screen texts (especially when the text window takes only part of the screen) is not the most convenient way, so even though some games are story-heavy, the descriptions still have to convey the mood in an efficient way, without spending lines upon lines of text.
Lessons on Worldbuilding
Of course, not every game out there offers a complex storyline to follow, but they can still offer a lot. I know of writers who passionately play strategy games and since they write military fantasy, I can imagine the hours spent on planning the attack and allocating units definitely contributes to their accuracy when it comes to depicting battles or having the characters discuss strategy.
Some games offer basic knowledge on economy or resources-manufacturers relations which is the information you might already have, but having waged more than one war over ore-rich mountains, I’ll have to find a very good idea to place a mining town at the seaside (which, of course, opens so many possible explanations that would lead to new ideas!) and if I ever have a city in the desert, I’ll never forget how much its population will be dependent on the nearby sources of water and food or outside trade.
What games I’d recommend to try? There are some big titles out there, like Skyrim or Dragon Age, but they’re geared more toward seasoned gamers, with their complexity and challenging, vast worlds. If you don’t feel like looking at my reviews, there are other titles you can check out.
From the old games (available on my favorite GOG.com) I’d recommend Fallout 2 (for post-apocalyptic flavor, unique characters, and great stories and humor), Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura (for its unique world mixing magic and steampunk, and for the engaging story), and Planescape: Torment (wonderful and thought-provoking story with unforgettable characters) or Neverwinter Nights (haunting stories set in a rich fantasy world). Even though I’m not a fan of these two, I appreciate Baldur’s Gate series and Icewind Dale.
There are also newer indie games to check: Shadowrun series (superb world building and interesting characters, the whole series shows how the same game can have a very different feel depending on which place of the world it’s set), Divinity: Original Sin (complex plotline and a lot of great, witty humor), Sunless Sea (unique world, a mix of victorian London and creepy tales, and stunning imagination), or Pillars of Eternity (dark and quite original world with a grim tale set in it).
Of course, the list is nowhere near being complete, and I’m sure that as soon as I publish this post, more titles will come to my mind with the cliche words “How could I have forgotten about this one?” So, if you play any video games, feel free to share your favorites. They might be among the one’s I’ve failed to mention or you might direct me toward my next gaming adventure. And who knows what story will grow out of it?
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.