I’m a gamer from way back. My dad brought home the original NES one day about twenty some years ago, and since them I’ve been hooked. In the early days, my brother and I played out our on screen adventures on a little black and white television as my parents were afraid that hooking the system to the living room TV would ruin it in short order, under the possibly dubious assumption that game systems were bad for televisions. We upgraded when my parents bought a new TV and allowed us to use their hand me down TV. Let me tell you, that was a huge improvement!
My brother and I spent hours and hours lost in the gaming world. Legend of Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Final Fantasy, and many, many more games. Eventually, when we got a computer, we got games for that as well. Point being, I’ve played a LOT of video games in my time. And I think that it has made me a better writer. That might seem like a funny thing to say, given gaming’s reputation for rotting the minds of the younger generation, but really when you look at the medium closely it becomes obvious it isn’t so strange at all.
The key is that games are interactive. Certainly, a book puts you in a character’s head and lets you see the world through their eyes. A movie does the same, although in a different way. But in a game, you get to control the story! Sure there are set points for advancement through every story, but you have to figure out how to get there. Even if it’s a simple platformer like Mario, you still have to figure out how to get through the level to get to the castle at the end (only to inevitably find the princess isn’t there!). Games allow you to explore, to play, in a way that books and movies never can. They actually encourage creativity and a sense of curiosity, especially adventures and RPGs.
Plus, games can give you a basic idea of how to put a story together. Usually the story line in a game leaves a lot to be desired in terms of depth and content (especially older games, with some notable exceptions such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6), but in a very basic sense they illustrate what a plot ought to be. Take Super Mario Bros, for example. The story problem is that Bowser has kidnapped the Princess. Mario has to go on a journey to save her, fighting through Bowser’s minions the whole way, until the final confrontation and the resolution, where our plucky plumber hits a switch and dumps the fiendish Bowser into a pool of lava.
Notice how Bowser is the engine of the story’s conflict. He wants to keep the princess, and Mario wants to save her. This basic conflict drives the entire game, just as the basic conflict between your protagonist and Final Boss in a story should drive the story conflict. Also, as Mario approaches his objective, the obstacles in front of him become increasingly difficult to surmount. Believe me, the last few levels of SMB get pretty hairy!
Then comes the climactic confrontation with Bowser, where we learn how NOT to tell a story. You see, it is rare for a boss fight in a video game to live up to the hype; the Big Baddie usually turns out to be a Big Wuss. Take Mario, for example. Sure there is more stuff flying around and what not, but really the battle with Bowser is no different than the battle with the bosses at the end of every level previous. In a book, you can’t let the climactic battle flop. It has to be gloves off, no holds barred, and mind blowing. You’ve ratcheted up the tension and hopefully have your reader with a white knuckle grip on your book, feverishly turning the pages to see what happens next. Make the release of tension explosive!
Once the battle with Bowser is over, the resolution comes. You finally find the princess and credits roll. Now the ending of a book has to be a bit more emotionally satisfying than that, but the principle remains. You have to tie up the loose ends and satisfactorily end the story conflict. Games have an edge over books in this department, as the pay off comes from the conquest. You fought HARD to get to the end, and even if its just a cheesy line of dialog from a pixelated lady then credits, it feels really good to see that. However, an author can simulate this feeling of payoff by really toying with their readers, by making them sweat for the protagonist all through the story. If you do your job right, the reader should be really anxious by the time the climax roles around, feeling like they’ve been through the ringer right along with the character. It might not be the same as battling through the mayhem with a digital avatar, but it’s close!
So, writers, don’t feel bad when you indulge your gaming habit. You’re making yourself a better writer, and having a blast doing it.