Writing Lessons from Games (Top 8)

Stories in Games

This post is not about writing games, rather games that have good stories or structures that writers might enjoy. Please note that there is a high level of subjectivity here, so let me know what you agree/disagree with. I’ve obviously not played everything, so if there’s anything I’ve missed, please let me know.

Without further ado, here is my list in reverse order.

Contains Major Spoilers for all games listed.

8 – Knights of the Old Republic

KOTOR, a sign of great things to come from BioWare

We’re starting with a Star Wars game of all things. This RPG puts you in the shoes of an amnesiac who wakes up in the middle of a space battle. Through twists and turns, you meet friends, hone your force powers, construct a light saber, and discover the truth about yourself. By the end, I had a deeper connection with this universe than most of the movies managed to cultivate. I cared about my companions and the consequences my choices would have for them.

This is especially significant when it turns out that you were the ‘big-bad’ all along…

Writing Takeaway: Exploit Expectations

In most such settings, having someone with ‘no memory’ is a generic starting point. After all, most RPGs allow you to start with a clean slate and build your own character. Think of the Elder Scrolls games: what happened before you escaped custody (or got off the boat) has little to no bearing on the rest of the story.

In this game, the creators tapped into the same expectation. They still made the mystery a fair game by sprinkling clues here and there, but your presupposition that your character is a nobody prolongs the mystery.

7 – Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Great Expectations

Yes, there are two Star Wars games on this list, but I feel that this one deserves a mention. Even years after LucasArts have gone to the oblivion of long, long ago, the emotional beats of the story stay with me.

What first appeared to be an excuse to force-pull a star destroyer from orbit, turned out to be a mature story of sacrifice and betrayal. This game manged to capture the heart of the franchise: adventure, friends, and family. Yes, those things more than blasters, spaceships, and saber battles, are the strength of the core story (let me know in the comments if you agree).

Writing Takeaway: Emotion Makes Action Matter

Darth Vader killed your family and recruited you to rule the galaxy by his side. Every destructive act in the game is the protagonist’s attempt to secure the approval of this infamous father figure. But this goes beyond the link between emotion and the dark/light side of the force.

Darth Vader admits that he wants to overthrow the emperor, but not with your help (we know he is referring to Luke, of course, and that makes the sting all the deeper). The secret apprentice’s sacrifice inspires the creation of the Rebellion (they even use his family crest). It’s a shame that it isn’t cannon, really.

6 – Horizon: Zero Dawn

Robo-Rex, why not?

This game’s story really surprised me. The writers knew that science fiction is more than aliens and explosions. Instead, it is a laboratory for speculation and social commentary – think HG Wells and Margaret Atwood.

On the surface, Horizon is a game hunting down robot dinosaurs with a bow and arrow. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? But beneath this rad façade, Horizon has two major themes: environment and gender.

Writing Takeaway: The best place for a message is in the theme

There are so many games that employ a patriarchal form of storytelling: worlds designed for the male viewer, with (so-called) male interests, and pretty ladies to gawk at. That might be a slightly unfair assessment of the gaming industry at large, but this is not without precedence (include link).

Horizon breaks these conventions in an important way. Instead of setting expectations and then subverting them, the narrative simply doesn’t acknowledge the conventions of old. You are a female protagonist. The world was destroyed by the greed of men. These are the facts and they aren’t dwelt upon.

Every quest (and side quest) reinforces the theme of man’s exploitation of nature and the burden ultimately falling on women (in the form of mothers or community leaders). These women are seldom portrayed as victims, though.

Horizon is (in this male blogger’s opinion) a fine example of feminist writing that is situated in a market that the industry wants us to believe is ‘male-dominated’. As writers, we should raise a little hell and change the world for the better. The best way to send that message of change is not to state it outright, but to make it part of the theme of your story.

5 – The Last of Us

Best escort mission, ever!

I could honestly have included the other Naughty Dog games here with the word ‘uncharted’ in the title, but I selected this zombie-horror-escort-mission-galore for one reason: subtlety.

Yes, you read that right…

The Last of Us has one of the most intense stories in modern gaming. While there are clicking fungus zombies (who are scientifically plausible) and violent take-downs, the true story beats are delivered in quiet moments.

Writing Takeaway: Let the reader draw conclusions

Joel lost his daughter at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse, so when we take control of him, he is already a broken man. Now he is responsible for a girl who might hold the key to the cure. That’s a brewing crucible if ever there was one. The parallels between this girl and his own daughter are obvious, yet never articulated. The same is true for their developing relationship: they grow closer in the quiet moments – from finding a nerdy backpack to witnessing a herd of giraffe.

Such a stark contrast between light (these moments) and dark (blood and gore) does something to the gamer. We come to care about Joel and Ellie. As players, we will them to be okay. The game makes us feel this way little by little by making us experience these ‘light’ moments.

Such delicate writing is a risk, for sure. Too heavy-handed and the whole thing would come across as saccharine. Too subtle and no one would notice. But, done just right, the effect is powerful.

In the end Joel cannot abandon Ellie to her fate – even if her fate is to die saving the human race. He cannot lose two daughters. And, if the narrative had any effect on you as a player, neither can you.

The game ends with a question. Joel gives his answer. Does Ellie believe him? Well, you’ve spent an entire game with her, so the best person to answer that is you.

Trust your reader’s intelligence enough to let them make such conclusions.

4 – Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

Weird awesomeness

This is a weird one, for sure. It is an excellent stealth game with solid mechanics and unexpected depth. While the overarching Metal Gear Solid is a thing as unfathomable as our Lord and Master, Cthulhu, Phantom Pain’s main story is a thing of beauty.

There’s a lot to take inspiration from in this game. Giant mechs not withstanding, the narrative has moments of gritty realism that someone like Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum would be proud of. Your true identity is like something out of a Philip K Dick paranoid sci-fi romp. The language-virus story-line is pure Hideo Kojima.

Writing Takeaway: Embrace the crazy – that’s where creativity lives

Imagine you want to wipe certain populations off the face of the Earth. Imagine that you could target the speakers of a particular language.

What seems crazy on the surface is actually sharp social commentary. MG5 does what Horizon does by hiding it’s message in the theme. However, here it is somewhat more overt. Again, this is sci-fi at it’s best.

Essentially, what Metal Gear 5 taught me is that heavy themes (nukes, government conspiracies, surveillance, etc.) are best illustrated when wrapped in the unexpected.

What do you think?

3 – Bioshock Infinite

Even the propaganda is important

This is a mind-bending masterpiece. It may well be the best story in any video game.

The complexity of the story is something that you ought to discover for yourself (plus, it’s too much to summarize here). But in essence, it’s a story of alternate dimensions and time-skips. One could say that it combines the lessons from The Last of Us and Knights of the Old Republic.

Much like the former, Infinite makes you care about Elizabeth – this girl you’re supposed to find to ‘wipe away your debt‘. Both in the quiet moments and in the heat of combat, Elizabeth is there to help you and revive you (in more ways that one).

There are many lessons that Bioshock Infinite (and the rest of the series) can teach us. [In writing this, I really feel like playing it again]. But, I think that the most important thing that we can take away from this game is in how the central mystery is delivered.

Writing Takeaway: Make the mystery a fair game, but cheat in the right way

A mystery is a tricky thing, isn’t it? You want to sprinkle enough clues in there so that the reveal has impact, but you don’t want to make it so obvious that everyone figures it out before the end.

Mysteries only work if you make it a fair game. If not – if you withhold a vital detail until the end (“…oh no, an evil twin…”) the audience will feel cheated. No writer should strive to instill that feeling. Instead, you need to make it fair enough so that the sharpest minds have a chance to figure it out.

Infinite does this successfully: once you know the answer to the mystery, it seems obvious on a second play-through. All the answers are there in front of you – ergo, a ‘fair’ game. However, few of us guessed the answer. Why?

I argue that this is because we don’t know what to make of the information when we receive it. For example, the ‘heads or tails’ scene early on (see below).

It doesn’t really mean anything to us, except maybe that the pair have only had ‘heads’ results all day. Odd, certainly. Significant? How would we know.

Only when we discover that Booker has been through this process over and over without much changing does this become significant. In other words, they keep the mystery a mystery because the context and meaning are still to be discovered.

So, reveal all the ‘whats’ you can, but keep the ‘how’ and ‘why’ under wraps for a while. This will make the reveal so much more impactful.

I guess I could also have said here: hide important details in between the seemingly unimportant. This is easy to get away with in a world with dazzling elements like floating buildings and steampunk monsters. Important lesson there.

2 – The Mass Effect Trilogy

I’m cheating a little by including three games under one heading, but you can argue that they are one story. A story that will live in our N7 hearts forever.

Yes, I even like the ending of ME3. I am a believer of the Shepard Indoctrination Theory (see video below).

Even if the creators say that it isn’t real (there seems to be some confusion on that front), the theory holds up to a lot of scrutiny. Chasing authorial intent is, as literary students know, a fool’s errand. The reader always wins, and knowing that we – the players – became indoctrinated along side our Shepard is too mind-blowing and meta to ignore.

Writing Takeaway: ‘Side’ characters make the stakes real

Controversy aside, the thing we all remember about the Mass Effect games (and the Dragon Age games, it must be said) is that we cared about the universe. We’ve had ‘saving the world’ story-lines before, but never were we invested in the outcome as much as we were with Mass Effect.

Poster by Dylan West

How exactly does one pull this off in a game where half of your companions and crew are aliens? Surely you cannot rely on verisimilitude to evoke sympathy. Can you?

You can if the struggles of these aliens are real and human. The ‘reality’ comes not from the way they look, but the way the react to the world around them [there seems to be something very deep hidden in there]. We are shown the impact of the Reaper War on the little guy. We know the little guy – we saved his butt and his family too, and we’re sure as Garrus not going to let them down.

1 – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Saving people, hunting things, the family business

Possibly the best game ever made. There, I said it. No other game gets close to the depth and richness of the Witcher 3.

You could almost learn all of the above from this single game (plus a game of Gwent). The narrative explores themes of fatherhood, class, race, gender, and so much more.

There’s a lot to learn from it – it might even differ from player to player. So, as a writer, what was your biggest takeaway from the Witcher 3 for you? Please share below.

To me, there is one aspect that stands out.

Writing Takeaway: The world has a heart

The lasting legacy of the Witcher 3 is that it has deep side quests (and a lot of them). Side quests in other games were minor tasks that aimed to inflate the play-time of the game. There are – of course – exceptions, but few games did side quests like the Witcher.

Here these minor tasks have depth and emotional weight. Most importantly, it colours the world. While you deal with royalty and major political players in the main quest, most side quests deal with the common woman/man. We see troubles that peasants face, we help grieving mothers, find lost children, and – with luck – dispel the stigma of a small town.

Through all of this, we come to know a gritty world with a soul. We know it has a beating heart because we’ve experienced it at all levels of society. Fantasy as a genre is often guilty of only focusing on the upper echelons of society (kings, queens, and chosen ones) and banishing all the rest to supporting roles like the servants they are.

This is something you should do in your own writing too: make the world live. Show the good and the bad. Take your reader on a journey through the magical and the uncomfortable. By all means provide an escape – have your protagonist be the mistress of a kingdom or duchy or whatever, but don’t skimp on the little guy. The little guy is – after all – the one who puts the food on the table and the poison in the mead.

Now to start writing

So, there you have it. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my favourite games. Like I said at the start, I’ve not played everything. So, please let me know if there are any gems out there that I’ve missed.

As always, leave a comment, like, or share if you appreciate the kinds of things I’m posting. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss a post!

Until next time, keep writing!

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