3 Writing Lessons Learned from Video Games

If you want to be a writer, the advice goes, then you need to read widely and regularly. That’s true, but I’d argue that there are also lessons to be learned from what’s often dismissed as a shallow pastime: video games.

When I’m not writing, editing, or thinking about writing/editing, I often wander back to my trusty PlayStation 4. Very often, my attempt to decompress reminds me why I tell stories. If you’re also a gamer when you aren’t crafting stories—or if you’ve never considered gaming as a source of inspiration—this blog is for you.

What lessons can a writer learn from video games? Here are three that come to mind.

Dynamic Backstory

My personal favorite genre is role-playing games (RPGs). Regardless of the external gameplay elements, RPGs are ultimately about placing you in the shoes of a character and making you care about their story. RPGs frequently present you with opportunities to make dialogue choices in conversations with other characters, including your allies.

Dialogue trees with non-playable characters (NPCs) are excellent examples of how to deftly weave interesting backstory for secondary people.

My favorite RPG of all time is the Mass Effect trilogy, a far-flung, intergalactic quest to save the world from aliens with the help of—you guessed it—other aliens. These characters gradually reveal their personalities and pasts over time, rather than announcing themselves in detail from the jump.

In the trilogy’s second installment, these side characters’ backstories become even more relevant because they’re tied to unique missions that only unlock through dialogue. If you breeze through Mass Effect 2 without engaging with your crew members, you’ll miss out on huge portions of the game.

It would be distracting if Jack, a deadly assassin, explained why she was in prison upon your rescuing her. The rescue is fraught with explosions, not info dumping—if you want to learn Jack’s traumatic origin story, you have to ask her. When the time is right, you can return to a painful place from her past and see her confront the heavy memories festering there.

Why do these side quests work so effectively?

First, they unfold over time, giving you the chance to care about the characters involved before you’re thrown into subplots that center those characters.

Second, those subplots develop the main plot. Most overtly, only characters whose side quests you’ve completed will survive the game’s final sequence—but on a deeper level, it strengthens your connection with the cast when you’ve interacted with each of them on a personal level. Instead of choosing which characters to travel with based on their weapons or skills, you find yourself choosing to spend time with those you most identify with.

In writing, if you’re ever tempted to peel back a character’s layers all at once upon introducing them, remember the lesson of the RPG. Spending more time with that character makes us care about what happened to them in the past. And when we care about what happened to them in the past, we’ll care about what happens to them in the future.

Worldbuilding

A book’s opening chapters are among its most important. Beyond introducing your characters, you have to develop the world around them in an interesting, layered, and believable way.

Video games have to address this challenge twofold: they have to explain their setting and their gameplay mechanics at the same time.

Some stories can leap directly into the action with minimal explanation because the plot is straightforward and familiar.

In the old school Sonic the Hedgehog games, for instance, very little is explained about the plot beyond the essentials: Sonic is a fast blue hedgehog. He is fighting an evil robot army. He must run, as fast as he can, from one side of the screen to the other. That’s it.

Sonic relies on the dynamic aspects of its action and the punchy personality of its hero to make an impression. If it stopped to explain Sonic’s childhood or the origin of the grassy loops he was running through, it would lose its magic.

On the completely opposite end of the worldbuilding spectrum, there’s Bloodborne, a brutal opus of Lovecraftian horror and punishing combat. Bloodborne has rich, detailed history for virtually every element of its world, from passing voices behind locked doors to every weapon you’ll obtain. Instead of providing a long opening cinematic to explain this, however, Bloodborne throws the player directly into its world with little explanation of its mechanics and no explanation of its story.

The magic of Bloodborne is in its slow unfolding. Players feel like they’re discovering a real place because they have to assemble its history from scattered details rather than being handed an encyclopedia.

If Sonic the Hedgehog is a flashy, accessible MG novel, then Bloodborne is a thick tome of adult horror.

That doesn’t make either one more inherently valuable than the other, but Bloodborne-level backstory for every ring in Sonic would be exasperatingly distracting, while Sonic’s focus on rapid pacing would break the intentional struggle of Bloodborne.

Similarly, in your writing, consider who your audience is and what style would benefit the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t bog down a quick-paced crime novel with needless upholstery description, but don’t neglect description of the world’s history in an epic fantasy.

Genre can be bent and altered, but some conventions hold true. Consider your audience’s expectations so that when you subvert them, it’s intentional.

Gameplay Loops

A gameplay loop is a series of repeating events that forms the core structure of a video game. In Borderlands 2, a zany first-person shooter, that loop consists of killing things with goofy guns, looting the area for new guns, and then using those new guns to kill more things. Rinse and repeat.

If Borderlands 2 were only about shooting—or only about looting—it would become repetitive and dull, but thanks to its gameplay loop, it’s broadly considered a gem of the genre.

To some degree, I would argue that strong stories also rely upon a loop: action and reaction.

If your entire novel consisted of your heroes punching villains, there wouldn’t be any time to care about what was happening; vice versa, if your heroes spent the entire book bemoaning the state of society without ever lifting a finger to change it, the reader would become exasperated. Good writing, like good gaming, must remember its core loop.

Your characters have to do something—but don’t forget to leave breathing room afterwards for them to react accordingly.

What writing lessons have you learned from video games? Sound off in the comments or find me on Twitter and Facebook. Hearing from fellow storytellers makes my day.

Updates

  • The current book giveaway is a hardcover of FIREBORNE by Rosaria Munda! It’s a richly textured YA fantasy world with dragon duels, fallen empires, and star-crossed lovers crossed every which way. Follow me on Twitter and retweet my pinned tweet before Friday 11/22 for a chance to win.
  • After the FIREBORNE winner is selected, the next giveaway will be a SIGNED paperback of THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON by Katherine Locke. It’s a unique blend of magical realism and historical fiction with a heavy amount of emotions tossed in. I nearly cried (in public) within the opening chapters.
  • I’m doing late-stage edits on THE FIRE BREATHES! Currently, I’m seeking beta readers who are familiar with YA fantasy and interested in providing general, constructive criticism. If that sounds like you, you can read the prologue here and reach out to me either in the comments or on Twitter for more information.
  • As always, thank you for reading—and never stop writing.