By now, it’s no secret that when I’m not writing, I’m likely playing one video game or another.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is one of my favorite ways to unwind after work. So much space on my laptop is consumed by mods and custom content for The Sims—not to mention the many expansion packs I’ve purchased over the years.
Especially as an adult, video games have been a form of escapism and the way I shut down my “writer brain” for a while. That said, I favor narrative-driven games, especially those with a choose-your-own-adventure setup and multiple endings, and that has taught me a few things about storytelling.
True for any media, understanding what is expected of your genre helps to ensure your audience will receive it well. Doing the unexpected or reworking common tropes is encouraged, but keeping the elements of your genre at the heart of your story is important.
This is why Until Dawn has been one of my favorite games since its 2015 release.
For one thing, it has that aforementioned choice-based mechanic that I thoroughly enjoy, but it knows exactly what it is and doesn’t shy away from it—an ode to teen horror flicks.
The way classic tropes are woven in like the cabin setting, the role of the Final Girl, messing around with a Ouija board, and Jessica being the first of the main cast to face a possible death after her and Mike’s self-proclaimed “sexcapade.”
Until Dawn is campy and cliché, but that’s what makes it such a fun experience.
At the same time, this familiarity is what made the game so predictable for players. Of the several steamers I’ve watched play Until Dawn, many were able to figure out the Psycho’s identity well before the big reveal based on elements commonly seen in horror movies. This is why stepping out of the box is so frequently advised.
Too far of a step, though, and your story might find itself going off the rails.
This was my experience with Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony.
Danganronpa has a history of playing into anime tropes while also straying from them, and players know to expect twists and turns ahead of every Class Trial.
However, the ending of V3 didn’t sit as well with me.
While the game revolved around some interesting cases and introduced my favorite character, Gonta, it seemed so removed from the main story; the way they were ultimately connected felt so shoehorned in. The whole thing being set in space after Earth was wrecked, the Monokubs, the whole thing with Atua, and the mess that is Korekiyo’s relationship with his sister, it all felt off somehow.
With the last Class Trial, it’s revealed that V3 is actually the 53rd season of a massively popular television show and the characters are told that their real selves voluntarily auditioned to compete. The backstories and Ultimate Talents that got them scouted by the school were made up for the sake of entertainment.
I get what the creators were going for, and it’s somewhat similar to the survivors of the first Danganronpa game discovering their actions are being broadcast to the outside world, but I had mixed feelings as it all unfolded.
It just didn’t feel like a Danganronpa ending. Not to mention, this being canonically fictitious in-universe killed the stakes for me; just didn't have the same impact of Mokoto and the other survivors' realization that their Killing Game was being broadcast as a means of furthering despair in the wake of Tragedy. Instead, the new crop of Ultimates were there of their own volition.
No matter if it’s your first experimentation in a genre or another entry in a series, it’s important to be mindful of conventions and audience expectations. When you do decide to go against the grain, do so in a way that won’t leave your readers scratching their heads.
Video games are often fast-paced.
Shoot-outs and showdowns, QTEs, time limits, and speeding away from threats keep your thumbs on the buttons and characters on the go. The thrill is in the rush.
Plenty of games, however, will have players slowing down between boss battles and chase scenes, and it's here that a lot of character development can occur.
Telltale's The Walking Dead and The Last of Us do a fantastic job of this. While each has its share of zombie-infested action sequences, both play out over long periods of time and travel. Whether it's Lee and Clementine's journey to Savannah to find her parents or Joel bringing Ellie to the Fireflies in the hope of discovering a cure, players are able to watch these characters go from strangers to a surrogate father-daughter bond able to depend on each other as they fight to survive. So much of this growth happens outside of the action.
As a writer, your goal is to craft an engaging narrative for your readers. Even though you should always keep the plot moving, it's important to include slower passages as well. That way, the relationship between your characters has a chance to build, and your readers' own attachment to them can develop.
After all, it's often the relationships that we remember.
Stop With The Side Quests
That all said, you don't need to (and honestly shouldn't) let things come to a screeching halt.
Most writers are guilty of writing scenes that end up getting cut somewhere in the editing process because they don't have any bearing on the central plot. I know I've definitely done it.
In my experience, these inclusions were designed to explore what was ultimately a minor subplot or give readers a closer look at the story's historical setting. They were fun to write, but my stance on them began to change when I began viewing them as side quests.
Especially popular in open-world games, side quests are missions unrelated to the main storyline. Examples include a "fetch quest" where you are asked to go get something for an NPC or competing in a competition like a shooting contest or a street race. Completing them may reward the player with XP and currency, and of course the trophies completionists strive for, but for the most part, they rarely influence the main events.
I became well aware of this during my second run of Cyberpunk 2077.
Aside from wanting to play more aggressively rather than my relatively passive V from the first playthough and test out a different Lifepath, the objective for my second go was gathering screenshots of Johnny Silverhand's prosthetic arm for my cosplay of the rockstar, which meant I was playing differently than the typical player.
Because of this, I sped my way through the game's opening and skipped over anything not directly connected to Johnny.
These side quests were fun to play and give players a chance to explore Night City, but they didn't contribute to the overall narrative and slowed things down tremendously.
Once V's mind begins to be taken over by Johnny, the threat of a ticking clock and V's imminent death is made clear. How long V has left is uncertain, but they know it's limited, and the main storyline focuses on their determination to escape being killed by the time bomb of a biochip.
Knowing this, the number of side quests throughout Cyberpunk 2077 somewhat detracts from this threat. We, as V, hear so often that we are dying and desperate for a solution, yet we have the option to go street racing with Claire or track down one of the bars Samurai used to play at so Johnny can feel a little nostalgia (and bitter disappointment after learning the Rainbow Cadenza was turned into a noodle shop).
In retrospect, while these excursions were fun, they were also a distraction.
Side quests can be enjoyable and offer a closer look at your setting, but they can also hinder your pacing or distract from the stakes.
Give your readers subplots, not side quests.
Don't Get It Twisted
Completionists are a unique bunch. They're the ones going after every trophy or achievement a game has to offer and on the hunt for every collectible, or they might just be interested in seeing what happens if different decisions are made in a choice-based narrative.
These hidden gems are coveted by many for another reason: lore.
Often, you'll find secrets and hints about a game's underlying story throughout the environment, things that provide answers to lingering questions and spark theories.
And there's no game with a theorist community quite like that surrounding Five Nights at Freddy's.
FNaF was a pioneer of the indie horror genre, and so much of its success has to do with its hidden lore.
On the surface, the haunted pizzeria seems pretty straightforward, but it's serving up one mystery after another in a way that keeps players coming back for more.
Piecing together timelines trying to pin down identities is almost as fun as managing your power supply and hiding from the animatronics.
Over the years, though, things have gone from complex to convoluted.
The series's reputation for hidden lore has made hiding clues, riddles, and Easter Eggs a compulsory part of each new game. Additionally, there is a collection of novels that form their own timeline, which some consider a separate timeline, but more recent games have indicated some connections exist between the two.
Trying to explain FNaF gets more difficult with the revelations each new installment brings to the table; the most recent ones have a habit of posing more questions than they answer.
Your story doesn't need to tie up every single loose end. It's not a bad thing to leave your readers guessing, such as with a cliffhanger at the end of Book Two with the promise of Book Three to come soon.
However, leaving so many questions unanswered can overwhelm your audience. If the proverbial carrot will forever be dangling out of their reach, they might stop trying to get it.
Setting The Stage
Another crucial element of storytelling is setting.
No matter if your characters are stagnant or always on the move, the world they live in needs to be interesting because your readers are going to be spending a lot of time there.
You'll also find worldbuilding plays a significant role in game design. While you're able to see these settings on the screen rather than imagining them from descriptions on a page, they must be intriguing enough for players to invest their time and want to explore.
Few games in 2021 received the internet's collective excitement in measure equal to that ahead of Resident Evil: Village.
Granted, much of the hype was inspired by Lady Dimitrescu—which was fully warranted.
Nine-foot-tall vampires aside, the thing I was most intrigued by ahead of Resident Evil: Village's release was the setting. It seemed like such a drastic shift from previous installments in the series, particularly Raccoon City and Dulvey, the latter of which being where the events of Resident Evil VII: Biohazard take place; a European village was the last place I would have expected the story of Ethan Winters to continue, but I was totally on board.
My love of Castle Dimitrescu and its lady are a topic I've gone more in-depth with in the past, so I won't go into great detail here. Suffice it to say, I was a bit disappointed when that portion of Resident Evil: Village came to a close much sooner than I anticipated.
Meanwhile, the other areas of the game each had their own intrigues that kept me invested as a player even though I wasn't as drawn to them and missing Lady Dimitrescu.
New areas began to open up throughout the titular village, and players could gradually solve puzzles they needed specific items for. The escape room setup of House Beneviento was a fun challenge and its subsequent boss battle played on my already-established dislike of ventriloquist dummies—and that godforsaken-slug-fetus-creature is pure nightmare fuel.
Setting was such a huge part of what made Resident Evil: Village enjoyable, but also made certain areas less favorable to me.
In my original Resident Evil: Village post, I talk about Heisenberg's section feeling disconnected from the rest, as it's more mechanical than rustic or glamorous as the rest of the settings. Although it did have elements that were cool, and certainly reminiscent of past Resident Evil titles, it felt more out of place because of Castle Dimitrescu and the village. When considered individually, it's an interesting area to explore. But when taken as a piece of the whole, it felt disconnected somehow.
Worldbuilding is a key part of writing, and something to consider in depth equal to aspects such as pacing and character development. Whether you're creating dangers that are always looming over your characters' heads, capturing a historical setting, or simply following genre conventions, make sure your setting is somewhere that your readers will want to spend a lot of time in.
Video games can be a distraction, but they're also a way for writers to study the craft.
Unlike movies or television shows, video games are more interactive because they put the control in the player's hands, just as the fate of a story's characters are in the hands of the writer holding the pen.
Writing for video games is a different set of skills than writing a novel, but some of the lessons carry over. By putting myself in the action, I have started to develop a better sense of pacing and tightening things up while also ensuring my readers have things to explore and think about.
And of course, there's something to be said for taking a break every now and again!