For the last several months, I’ve been using Red Dead Redemption 2, a 2018 video game from Rockstar Games, to teach creative writing. Every week, students are assigned part of the game to play, along with a corresponding lesson and writing assignment to go with that game section. Each lesson covers things like world building, character development, giving readers an emotional experience, and the freedom many games give players in letting them craft their own stories, all of which I’ve written about in my first piece on how games can make you a better writer.
The lessons writers can take from games are endless. After all, video games wouldn’t exist without writers to build their worlds, craft the lore, create memorable characters, and leave players rooting for the protagonist and wanting to come back for more.
About a year ago, there was a game that came out that was exactly the sort of game I love to play — a story-rich role playing game — that I just couldn’t get into. I played for about an hour and even after all that time, nothing about the plot, the characters, or their motivations was reason enough to keep at it. Then I read this about it:
“A few hours in, the story gets really good.”
I’m sorry, a few hours? I’m supposed to spend that much time not enjoying something with the hope of enjoying it soon? No, thank you.
If a game doesn’t interest me with its story and its gameplay within the first few minutes, I’m not likely sticking around to see if it ever will. The same can be said about books, short stories, and even nonfiction essays. If I don’t know what I’m going to gain from it from the get-go, I just don’t have the time to make myself continue.
Luckily, most video games know this and hook you in with memorable characters and their goals and motivations right from the start.
Take Dragon Age Inquisition for example. Right at the start of the game, there you are, in a dimly lit dungeon and you may or may not have been responsible for what appears to be the end of the world due to a mysterious glowing mark on your hand. Immediately you know what’s at stake and you’re likely intrigued enough to see what you can do about righting this thing you may or may not have done.
Further on in Dragon Age Inquisition, you explore various regions in which there are enough side quests to do that prove interesting enough and give you, the player, agency over your time in the game between the main quests to keep you hooked, keep you rooting for the good guys and against the bad guys.
Let’s think of main quests in games as the major plot points in stories and side quests as all the stuff that happens in between. You don’t simply jump from major plot point to major plot point, right? You have to give the reader something in between. But how much is too much? Spend a bit of time in a game doing main quests and side quests and get a good feel for when you’ve had your fill of the fluff and you’ll come away with a pretty solid understanding of how to pace the “side quests” in your writing.
Let’s stick with Dragon Age Inquisition for this point. There are tons of characters in the game, some more important than others. Your companions (those characters you bring along with you on your quests) Solas, Cassandra, Sera, Varric, and more, are shining examples of balanced characters.
The game was released in 2014 and I’ve played through all 100+ hours of it five times now. It wasn’t until my fifth time through, which I’m just finishing up now, that I realized I don’t hate Sera as I’ve always thought I did. Intent on this play through on finding out how in the world she could be anyone’s favorite characters in the game, I made myself bring her on every quest and made my character pursue the option to “romance” her. In doing so, I discovered a character that just may become my new favorite. Sarcastic and dismissive, quick to make jokes about nearly everything on the surface. But once you talk with her and spend time getting to know her, you discover a woman hurt by her past who has built pretty big walls to protect herself but is moral and intent on helping everyone, making the world better, especially for “the little people” who are so often ignored.
This sort of balance that requires you to get to know the characters to learn all about them is present in every character in the game and success in the game is a delicate balancing act of making choices that please this diverse cast of characters or risk losing their loyalty. Not everything you do is going to please the same character all the time and in making your in-game choices, you see this balance play out in how they show new bits of themselves that may leave you surprised to have learned something about them.
This balance is what we strive for in our characters in writing as well but it’s sometimes hard to see it. It’s difficult to give your own characters that you’ve created and probably come to be rather fond of negative qualities, annoying qualities, qualities which may make your reader cringe. Yet we cannot have perfect characters because there’s nothing less believable than a character that isn’t flawed in some way. Games help materialize this balance in a way books can’t because through voice acting and animation, we see and hear subtle changes in their disposition. Experiencing these flaws in this more tangible way can be a great help in materializing flaws on the page because it’s caused us to think about them differently.
The small details are something I always notice given the sort of work I do in video games. Without background music, is exploration interesting? Without ambient nature sounds, do I feel as immersed as I do with birds chirping and wind blowing? Without the chatter of my companions or background non-playable characters, do I care less about them? Working in accessibility in games, I’ve often said, “If it’s important enough to include in your game, it’s important enough to caption.” What I mean by that is, if you’ve included it in your game for the sake of world building and immersion for hearing players, you need to extend this world building and immersion to deaf and hard of hearing players.
What in the world does that have to do with writing? These little immersive details are the the things you describe in your writing from time to time to ground your character in your world. Say your character is taking the subway. They’re not likely sitting there alone, in a silent vacuum of a train car. There’s stuff going on around them. Someone preaching or screaming, friends talking, the constant clank of the train car on the rails. A little bit of that needs to make it onto the page or there’s not really any point in including your character’s subway journey.
Jump into a game you’ve played before but this time, do it with the sound off. What’s missing? How do you feel differently about it? Then turn the sound back on and take in all the little things that make you feel like you’re right there in the world and take those to your writing.
Most of my favorite games are purely character studies. Sure, there are other characters and things going on, but what motivates the player is that one central character. I found this to be true in Red Dead Redemption 2. Yes, Dutch “I had a plan” van der Linde and others are there keeping Arthur Morgan company but Arthur, his flaws and redeeming qualities, and his fate are what drive the game. And you, the player, get to decide the specifics of how he conducts himself in the world. Is he kind, does he help people? Or does he hog tie everyone he sees to rob them of whatever wealth they have?
The game I mentioned above that took “a few hours” to get good? One of the problems I had with it was that the character study was simply not good. I didn’t care about the guy I’d be spending 40+ hours controlling. He had motivations but they weren’t written in such a way that made me feel their impact. And his sidekick? He was so grating with his dialogue that I wondered more than once when he’d die so I didn’t have to listen to him anymore.
And in Dragon Age Inquisition the character study for the Inquisitor (the player character) comes from their interactions with the cast of companions. Video games are packed with examples in character studies, both good and not so good. But spending some time in a game and guiding my character through their motivations always leaves me with new ideas to guide my characters in writing through their goals and motivations. Or how not to do that.
In video games, my favorite thing to do is create a fresh save file just before making an important decision just in case I make the wrong decision and need to redo it. I want to avoid unintended game altering conflicts. Like the time I made the wrong choice in Dragon Age and made my love interest disapprove of me.
There are countless games where player choice drives smaller conflicts. If you make enough “wrong” choices, will you have any companions left at the end to help you achieve the final goal? Will you die? Will those you’ve come to care about die? In games, small conflicts often lead the plot toward the main conflict. And that’s similar to books, right? There’s not simply the one big conflict. As in life, there are hundreds of small conflicts every single day, in every interaction. But which of those are important enough to include in your writing?
In games, the player is never shown the mundane conflicts (unless you’re playing The Sims). Those detract from the story and the characters. The player doesn’t care that Arthur had the last cup of coffee or that the Inquisitor likes cookies and Sera has bad memories about cookies. The player cares about how they choose to talk about cookies with Sera and how helpful (or not) Arthur is at camp. These are the little conflicts, like the pacing side quests, that drive the player to the main conflict and the resolution. How will Arthur be remembered by his gang? Will the Inquisitor get to romance Sera like I’m hoping and end the game by her side?
You don’t want to fill your writing with pointless fluff conflicts and if you’re prone to wanting to include too many mundane details, playing a game and seeing what isn’t shown is a great way to sift through what you should include or not in your own work.