Writing is certainly my passion, but it's not the only hobby you'll find me dabbling in. Gaming is one of my favorite past times you'll see me touching on every now and then on the blog.
In recent years, I've realized that my favorite games have impacted my storytelling. But even more recently, I've started to realize the way I write impacts what I most like play.
You'll often find writers sorting themselves within a set of classes based on how their preferred methods. There are the Planners who will go into a new story with an outline that may be very in-depth and potentially other notes like character bios, maps of their setting, or a full series bible covering everything under their WIP's sun. Then you have the Pantsers who prefer to dive right in head-first with only the bare minimum of details laid out and write in whatever direction the story takes them—literally writing by the seat of their pants. And lastly, there are the Plantsers who typically go into a new project with a basic outline to establish the foundation but are also apt to go with the flow.
I identify as a Plantser, and my approach to a new writing project seems to resemble the kinds of video games I'm typically drawn to.
I'm a fan of games that are built on a choice-based narrative, the kind where the player's decisions impact the direction of the game. Detroit: Become Human, Until Dawn, and Telltale's The Walking Dead series, are frequent recommendations of mine because they are easy to invest in and can often lead you down the unexpected road. After all, who would have predicted that shooting a squirrel in one chapter could result in a character being captured by the Psycho several chapters later?
It's also fun to revisit these titles and make different choices to see the alternative routes.
These games all match my Plantser side. Even though there is a set path overall, the choices you make as a player can alter the course. The final episode of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier will always see Javier make it out alive, but the players' choices will impact who is standing with him at the end, whether that is Gabriel, Kate, or David, as well as the relationships between these characters. There's a set outline for the story's direction, but the finale evolves as you progress through it.
Sometimes, however, I'll step out of my comfort zone and try something a little different. That was exactly the case with my latest game: Elden Ring.
This is probably a good time to mention that there are minor spoilers for Elden Ring throughout the rest of this post!
Elden Ring is a dark fantasy game in which players step into the shoes of a Tarnished, whose details are entirely up to their design, caught in the Lands Between and on a quest to retrieve the shards of the Elden Ring and become the Elden Lord. FromSoftware, the company behind Elden Ring, is also behind many other titles, most notably Dark Souls, and much of the game was in collaboration with Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin. As expected, the game has become incredibly popular.
I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting myself into, but I dove in head-first.
That was admittedly a bit of a mistake.
Prior to Elden Ring, the only open-world games I had played were Cyberpunk 2077 and Red Dead Redemption II. Both of these are fairly structured. While the player has absolute freedom to go wherever they please, there's an objective list that gives you options and a sense of where to go. In Cyberpunk 2077, you have the option of going to meet up with Panem or checking in with Takemura, and along the way you might get a call from Judy or hear the shouts of Flaming Crotch Man in the distance. It doesn't matter which you handle first, but you know you have a list of things you can do and a direction to head in.
Elden Ring is different in that regard.
Once you get past the tutorial, you're thrown into Limgrave without any established plan aside from a vague direction to locate Castle Stormveil. Much of the map is obscured as you're meant to find the remaining pieces of it as you progress.
The thing about Elden Ring is that it does have an agenda system. Throughout the world, you'll see beams of light guiding you from one point to the next until you reach a destination like Castle Stormveil.
I'm not sure if it was my Plantser nature coming through or the culmination of my previous open-world game experiences, but I heeded the instructions of White Mask Varré like gospel and started following Grace from the get-go. This eventually led me to Castle Stormveil—coming face-to-face with Margit the Fell Omen, who I was severely unprepared to face at the time. I was decimated innumerable times. Not having leveled up my character in a way that used the attribute system to my advantage, going in without a stronger weapon, and charging ahead while I was still getting a grasp on the combat system was a recipe for disaster.
Frustrated to no end, I walked away from the game for about a week. Some of this was spent researching the game and strategies for defeating Margit, making me realize that instead of following Grace so obediently, Elden Ring is a game for Pantsing. It's better to veer off the path laid out by Grace and to just traverse the land with reckless abandon. To see what's out there and awaiting you.
By letting go of the "plan" and roaming around somewhat aimlessly, I started to pick up pieces of the map, uncovered more sites of Lost Grace, looted better weapons and strengthened one of my swords, and gradually toughened up my character—a chunk of which happened through foraging and selling flowers to gain the required runes.
This exploration is how I happened upon NPCs like Blaidd the Half-Wolf, Kenneth Haight, and a talking pot called Alexander The Iron Fist (right). I also gave myself some grace of a different sort, giving myself permission to not deal with things even if it seemed like that was where the game wanted me to go.
Over time, that feeling of being lost made way for curiosity, and Elden Ring became more fun.
In a past post, I wrote about some of the lessons I've learned from video games, and Elden Ring added another to the list: it's sometimes better to stray from the outline.
All Plantsers are different in their methods. When I approach a new story idea, I tend to go in with an outline that covers the basics but isn't necessarily as strict as those of a Planner. Even with the first draft of Forged in the Salle, which somehow had me writing scenes out of order, I mostly followed what was outlined for each chapter and story as a whole.
Lately, I've been working to loosen up as a writer. Letting more sarcasm into my narrative voice, being gentle with myself when I'm not able to pin down a specific historical detail after hours of research, and being less afraid to hit the Delete button when my gut tells me something isn't working. Softening my Planner side for the moment is what made it easier to come back to Bound to the Heart and writing in general after being away for so long. Looking back, so many of my favorite lines of dialogue and realizations about my characters have not been found in the outline, but in spending time with the story and exploring. Forgoing the plan, even for a moment, and just letting my mind wander. It's more of these moments that I want to bring into the revisions of Bound to the Heart and my other WIPs—including those I have yet to embark on. Am I giving up my outlines and planning forever? Certainly not! I am instead trying to give myself more permission to play as I write. To see where things take me.
Elden Ring may be a beast for folks unfamiliar with open-world adventures and the challenges games like Dark Souls are known for, but there is plenty to discover not only about the way I play, but the way I write.
And for the record, after approximately forty logged hours of gameplay, I did finally take down Margit the Fell Omen.