The New Frontier: Writing for Video Games

I have sometimes envied writers like Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, writers who discovered the form of the novel, pulling existing works (epic poems, journals, and plays) together into a new kind of writing that had never existed before in English. Today, we novelists still invent, but it’s an invention informed by three centuries of our predecessors’ work. If we are explorers, we are not Marco Polo or even Lewis and Clark, but their modern day descendants, exploring the last remaining uncharted corners of the novel form.

But I am not only a novelist: the bulk of my professional writing has been for video games, far younger as an art form, and still relatively unexplored as an art form. Exploring the possibilities of this new medium means finding narrative techniques unique to this form—stories that can only be told in the form of a game. Over the course of this piece, I’ll highlight a few of the unique stories that games have allowed me to tell, or to experience.

What’s in a name?

In a novel, the writer names the protagonist. In a game, the player often gets to do so. This slight difference can lead to a completely different level of identification and investment.

In Surviving High School, a story-based game for mobile phones, I let players name the main character, a freshman girl at a new school. Many players chose to name her after themselves, immediately identifying with her. What they didn’t know was that this girl was about to get saddled with a horrible boyfriend, a narcissistic golden boy named Brian who was using you as part of an elaborate campaign to win the school presidency.

Such a plotline would have been bad enough in a book, where readers might be up in arms, watching the sweet protagonist date a borderline sociopath… but the fact that this was happening to THEIR character was almost too much for players to bear. Players hated Brian… and they kept downloading new episodes each week, counting down the minutes until they were finally allowed to dump him.

The Message in the Medium

Recently “clicker” or “incremental” games have seen a huge spike in popularity. Essentially, clicker games use a core mechanic or asking the player to repeatedly click a box, generating in-game currency. Over time, players are allowed to hire other workers to generate currency automatically, thus allowing for increasingly expensive purchases, which generate even MORE currency.

“Candy Box,” “Cookie Clicker,” and “Make it Rain” are fantastic games, but “A Dark Room” truly elevates the genre. As you play, the game provides a running commentary, where a helpful stranger comments on your in-game actions. Rather than simply celebrate your economic victories as other games in the genre do, “A Dark Room” takes a dark view of your increasing wealth and consumption. Halfway through the game, the helpful “workers” generating your income are re-labeled as “slaves” and the helpful stranger starts asking you to stop, warning that your lust for gold is turning you into a monster. It’s a truly emotionally powerful moment, in which the player realizes she’s complicit in the evils described—that she, through her actions, has become a virtual slave master.

Profound Experiences

Finally, for those new to games, I’d like to provide a short list of some great narrative experiences awaiting you. These are a great place to start exploring the artistic side of a rapidly expanding genre, and each delivers a fascinating story that could only be told as a game. With any luck, they’ll be the works that inspire you to create games of your own.

Flower:  you play as petals on the wind, breathing life into ruined landscapes.

Great if you like: Haiku.

Chrono Trigger:  you assemble a band of time travelers to save the world. Trees you plant in one age stand tall in another; kindnesses you do for hungry families trickle down through time, making their descendants generous.

Great if you like: Cloud Atlas.

Portal:  you play as a test subject, attempting to escape an experimental lab through the use of a novel teleportation technology.

Great if you like: puzzles, MC Escher.

The Last of Us:  you play as a broken man escorting a young girl across a zombie-infested America.

Great if you like: The Walking Dead.

To the Moon:  you play as two scientists, rearranging a dying man’s memories to convince him that he traveled to space.

Great if you like: Spike Jonze.

Finally, in the current game I write for, High School Story, my team has smartly turned what could have been a simple game about gathering students into a commentary on friendship, acceptance, and empowerment.

Great if you like: John Green.

Thanks for playing!