Updated: Jan 10
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I’m an aspiring game designer turned writer and author. I’ve been studying how to conceive, plan, and write video games long before I even put a thought toward drafting any book - or blog for that matter. Still, even after becoming a writer, the gamer part of me thrives. I love playing games. I love reviewing games, and who knows? Maybe someday something I write will one day become a great game. However, regardless if God has game designing in my future or not, my experiences playing and studying video games have taught me quite a few things about what it takes to write a great story. Some tips you might have heard before. Some you might have not, but there are plenty of skills I mainly learned while adventuring through the digital space.
1. Build the Experience
Gaming and reading are opposite entertainments in some respects. One requires active interaction. The other requires passive attention, yet delivering an experience is something they both share in common. One of the most substantial lessons every game designer learns is how to focus their game’s intended experience. Whether it’s to give players the sensations of flight or strength, everything from the onscreen visuals to the controller itself must compliment and reinforce the experience. Video games, like our planet, is made up of four elements: story, aesthetics, mechanics, and gameplay. Each part (if done well) feeds and strengthens the others - especially when they share the same experience goal. Similarly, I found that books also comprise of four elements: plot, characters, style, and presentation. Plot forms its body. Characters give it life. Style is how it flows, and presentation is the book in tangible form. If one element is lacking or conflicts the others it weakens the book, but if they mesh together towards the story’s ultimate message, I’ve learned they can combine to create a truly memorable and deeply impactful experience.
2. Balance Handholding
There’s a very fine line between how much help an individual needs and doesn’t need. Nobody likes getting their intelligence insulted, yet nobody likes being clueless either. As a result, game designers have to constantly figure out when to handhold players and when to hold back. It’s extremely difficult to know. (Is a tutorial needed? Or should players be allowed to jump in and learn?) Authors have a difficult time with this in their own way too. (Is more explanation needed so readers can follow? Or is the constant exposition sucking the intrigue right out of the text?) Either way, a balance needs to be met, and from what I’ve learned as a gamer, one of the surest ways to find that balance is to tailor your work toward your primary audience. One crowd of people might prefer lots of handholding. Another might prefer discovering things on their own. It’s really a matter of studying your core group and learning what suits them. Which is precisely where beta-testers and beta-readers come in. Once I understood that and conducted my own audience tests, I found myself that much closer to hitting the handholding mark my book needed.
3. Speak through the Background
Most writers might compare what I’m about to say with the infamous ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. Just about every new author hears it, but I’ll confess. My newbie ‘writer’ self found that concept very very hard to grasp. My ‘gamer’ self, however, caught onto this another way. You see, some of the most applauded, plot-centric games out there didn’t use much dialogue or narration. Some didn’t even bother to have a single speaking line. Instead, games like Little Nightmares, Journey, and Riven relied on the scenery and visual cues to tell their story. In other words, the backgrounds literally directed players, and it was up to the players to observe and deduce what’s happened and what’s happening. The result was some of the best, ‘suck-you-in’ atmospheres ever conceived. Now, not every great, plot-centric game out there employed this tactic, but the ones that did certainly helped me clearly understand what ‘show, don’t tell’ truly meant. Books don’t have to spell everything out if the right descriptive details are there to show it. A good writer, much like a good game designer, can speak volumes through the environment alone.
4. How to Move Opposing Pieces
I find it easy to over focus on my protagonists. It’s probably because I’m always interested in ‘good-guys’ winning in clever ways. The trick was, I wanted my main villain to be an intriguing source of conflict too. I couldn’t make interesting conflict if he was a stationary ‘bowling pin’. He needed to be convincing, so I tried brainstorming the dirtiest deeds possible for him to do. Needless to say, I kept coming up dry. Nothing sounded interesting or original, but then it hit me during my competitive play against other Overwatch players. I’d be strategizing and fighting the same way I was right then if I was on the opposite team. After all, it’s said every villain is the hero of their own story. If I was a badguy, I wouldn’t only do what was spiteful. I’d be doing what I try to do everyday: be ‘smart’. Now, whether or not a particular decision is an actually smart idea is beside the point. The point is: one’s intention is what can make a choice evil, but it’s the logic and sense behind it that gives it interest and weight. After learning that, I stopped strictly seeking nasty deeds for my antagonist and started asking myself, ‘If I were the villain, what would I do to win?’ The conflicts in my story gained loads more interest afterwards.
Speaking of conflicts, I learned something else while playing competitive games. I know this doesn’t apply to every kind of story, but I learned that when weaving realism in an action-heavy scene, there’s no such thing as a one-man army. This became especially apparent to me as I watched professional Overwatch League. You can be the best sharpshooter, swordsman, or combatant in the world, but when you’re facing more than two or three people in a threatening situation, you’re very unlikely to win the fight. Now, miracles do and have happened. Still, the point remains the same. You could be Batman, and your chances of surviving a real group of charging thugs would be slim regardless. Your best chance at that point is to either escape or have a well coordinated team to back you up. So whether it comes to conceiving a game-plan or an epic battle-scene, I learned it’s not always the side with the best warrior that necessarily wins. It’s more often than not the side with the most communicative and coordinated team that triumphs.
6. Natural Audience Inference
Audiences sometimes react the way the author or game developer hopes they would. Other times, though, the audience does something totally unexpected, and I don’t simply mean whether they ‘like’ or ‘hate’ the finished product. Sometimes audiences add or expand the lore in directions the creators didn’t originally plan. I especially noticed this occurring to games like the very first Five Nights at Freddy’s. When someone loves something, it’s not uncommon for them to speculate or infer things about that world, and it’s often the game or book’s tone that leads their theorizing in certain directions. Now, I’m not so presumptuous as to assume I can control people’s reactions to Celestial or even that Celestial is gonna be this huge hit or something. That’s for God to decide, but I realized as I reflected on those games how foolish I’d be to write a book without preparing for possible audience inference. I needed to be aware of how my tale might come across or how it could be taken the wrong way. I know I can’t please everyone. Nor can I completely prevent my story from being misconstrued, but it became clear to me as a gamer that as a writer I should do my best to set a clear tone and theme. Then Celestial could lead whomever it touches to thoughts worth dwelling upon.
And there you have it! Let me know what tips you’ve heard or haven’t heard before on this article and don’t forget to subscribe below!