Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 1)

Hello, internet!

Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.


Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.

One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.

Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature).  I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.

Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).

Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.

That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.

If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created,  I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.

I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.

I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.

In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…


Story Challenge of the Week

I love classic fantasy. Honestly, much as superheros, giant robots, and space battles are all cool, none of them compare in my book to some good swords and sorcery. This is one of the reasons that I’ve been upset with the rampant abuse of sexuality in the Game of Thrones series. It’s a good show, based on great novels, with interesting characters, a well-developed world, and a strong story. Still, I generally try to avoid watching it (obviously, I don’t always succeed) because of the sheer number of naked people. Don’t get me wrong, I think my posts here have shown that I’m not against graphic material when it serves a good and useful purpose (something that I think Martin generally handles very well in the series). However, most of the skin in HBO’s version of Game of Thrones does not serve a good and useful purpose. It’s just naked people prancing around on the screen for no good reason. It’s distracting. So, here is your challenge today. Consider the picture below and write me a story that explains the picture without any unnecessary distractions:

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

As The World Turns (in your novel)

Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Final Fantasy VII, and Orpheus (White Wolf table top game) all exist in this post.

I was playing Saint’s Row the Third when this idea struck me. I’ve thought it before, but never with such clarity.

Novels should be a point in time of incredible change. It’s that chapter in your history text book instead of a mere two paragraphs. It’s the story grandpa tells you about his grandpa, which you in turn will tell your grand kids. We still hear stories about how my four or five times great grandpa served under General Meade in the Civil War. Something incredible happened, and life would never be the same. While these moments are improbable, most people don’t read for the mundane. They read for the (believably) extraordinary.

I played a table top game called Orpheus. Or more so I read it and prepared a story and my group said it sounds boring. Neither here nor there. Anyway, the game was broken up into six books which were to make a movie set up. The movie set up, though shorter, works fairly well for any form of storytelling. I’m really only hitting the first and second step in this post.

Start your story with a norm. It doesn’t have to be a happy norm. In Orpheus you worked for an organization that fought ghosts. You started off as a human, a human who could do astral projection (naturally or with a drug), or a ghost. In Final Fantasy VII you start out as a mercenary with work to do. In Game of Thrones we get to see the Stark family in their natural habitat, along with a bit of a look at the natural order of the kingdom. Look at one of your favorite books, TV shows, video games, or any other story and try to find out what the norm is. There are obviously degrees of normal, whether it’s for the character or an entire nation, but you can get a pretty good sense of what is setting up the story.

Now change the world. Don’t love tap it. Don’t nudge it. Make us think you will do that. Convince the reader there is a plan and that we will ride that roller coaster. Set up plan after plan on how things should go and make us believe it will remain on those tracks. Then quietly place us in a car and side swipe us with a truck. Make sure we can see the truck out of the corner of our eye the entire time. Force us to realize in that moment that every single hint was there for us, but we were looking forward with such intensity we refused to look at the semi barreling at us ever so obviously.

In Orpheus, the company was destroyed by hired hands and you’re wanted by the feds. Prepared for another chapter of how I worked for this ghost hunter company, my jaw dropped when I read about how it all suddenly and violently changed. The hints were there, I should have seen it coming, but I just assumed nothing would interfere with my beautiful little path. In Final Fantasy VII you fall in love and wish to rescue a poor girl wrapped up with the corrupt government, a government you once worked for. The Starks are separated early on and their luck is never good. You watch a family get temporarily pulled apart to watch an honorable family get cleaved in twain over and over again.

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Like free wallpapers? http://freepspwallpapers.wordpress.com/tag/cataclysm/

Notice the theme of each of these; some form of exile. The world will never be the same either over all or for the main characters. Some decision has happened which completely alters the plans so carefully laid out. The village they lived in was destroyed (Jade Empire), the beloved family is kidnapped and used as blackmail (Red Dead Redemption), Enkidu is brought to fight Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh), Lancelot sleeps with Guinevere (King Arthur), and the list goes on. In a romance, the story might start with a divorce, a break up, a need to leave home for vacation, or some other push out of the nest. An action flick usually starts with a warrior, modern or ancient, realizing something is a lie and having to right that wrong. Obviously by blowing up everything.

The most important part of these alterations is they should bring real change to the world, not just something superficial. Using Saint’s Row to come full circle, this is what struck me about their world. When you start, it’s fairly benign. Sure you were just punched in the face by a rival, but it was local and small. You do lose your home and need to start over, but that change was small compared to how the world advanced. As time goes a paramilitary organization comes in and suddenly the fire power of law enforcement is significantly better. The story continues and martial law is brought down on one of the numerous islands so whenever you’re there, you start at a low wanted level. The bridges are brought up so you need to jump them to go anywhere. What truly kicked me in the teeth, though, was a green smoke which came from a small factory island. The island was suddenly zombie infested. It would always be that way. Each stage had irrevocably altered the landscape. I get in some genres this won’t work as drastically, but aren’t most of us sci-fi and fantasy writers? If we can’t completely alter our world, then what genre can?

Here is my challenge for you! Create a norm. Make up a character and some small setting, and come up with what a normal day is. It should still have some tension, though really all normal parts of life have it. Give them goals and desires. Once you have these goals, start coming up with how your character goes about obtaining it. Get him closer and closer to that end game, even if he only takes one of twenty steps. Now figure out how to make those goals nearly meaningless. Smash the character with some force that makes his goals nearly meaningless, or at least secondary. Remember, the world stops for no one. Keep it moving. Keep it interesting.

The Fairy Queen

Well, we have a new writer that I’ve been talking to for a while, and I must say that her first post is very good. So, here is the first post from Abigail Brubaker:

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Faerie tales are a foundational genre for many modern storytellers, myself included. Through everything from Disney movies to hefty volumes of Grimm or Anderson, faerie tales long ago established their influence in my mind – and, by extension, my writing. Their patterns are easily learned. For a reader familiar with the genre, reading a faerie tale is much more a dance of well-known steps than a baited-breath chase after an unpredictable plot. Faerie tales are methodical, as a general rule, and tend to make use of the same elements. These familiar tropes – recurring places, plot devices, and character roles – can be examined, extracted, and repurposed for use in stories of any genre.

Today’s post will address the figure of the villainess – the evil stepmother, queen, or witch (or combination of the three). In stories which feature her, she is the primary force of malevolence, the one who lays a terrible curse or throws children out of their homes. A number of the best-known western faerie tales include some incarnation of this archetype, with varying degrees of menace and power. The stepmother in Cinderella is a comparatively light version of the trope, with no magic or influence outside her own home. Snow White’s villainess, on the other hand, is stepmother, queen, and witch in one.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Here is the core of the villainess figure: she is a force of spite, of self-centered violence and vengeance. She is envious and petty, cunning and relentless, always scheming against those who are in her way. She seeks her own gain and glory (or that of her own children) with every ounce of dominion she has at her command – magical or otherwise. There is no pity in her, no hesitation. Her only moral compass is her pride. Anyone who touches the things she considers her property – a head of lettuce, the title ‘fairest’ – is subject to her fury. Neither will the smallest slight be borne. Beware, those who would leave her off the guest list for a royal christening. She is queen regardless of titles or crowns; her household is her realm, or her cottage, or her garden. Her ire is swift and her hand unyielding.

The villainess of the faerie tale canon is notable for her typical lack of depth. Her motivations, as given by the text of the stories, are purely selfish or malevolent. She is not written to be sympathized with; she is written to be feared and hated. When writing a villainess à la Grimm, be conscious of that precedent. Either play it up – portray your villainess through the eyes of those who dread her and see her not as human but as an embodiment of evil – or turn it on its head and build a character who acts as a villainess but whose actions are explainable and whose motivations resonate with the reader in some way. There is great potential in both avenues. The strength of an indecipherable, inhuman force is terrifying, while a villain who is revealed to have been made villainous as a result of their humanity can illicit the audience’s fellow feeling.

villainess x 3Three examples of this trope from contemporary culture are Cruella de Vil (of 101 Dalmatians), Miranda Priestly (of The Devil Wears Prada), and Cersei Lannister (of A Song of Ice and Fire). Cruella is the most simplistic of the three – as complies with her cartoon setting. She is entirely despicable, being described as “a spider waiting for the kill,” a “vampire bat,” an “inhuman beast.” She has no qualms towards the prospect of killing puppies in order to produce the coat of her dreams, and there is nothing redeeming shown about her character. Miranda, the cutthroat editor-in-chief of a premier fashion magazine, rules her offices with a razor tongue and what seems a complete absence of human emotion. She is given a hint of sympathy, however, when the audience is granted a glimpse of her love and concern for her young daughters. Finally, Cersei is perhaps the most nuanced villainess of the three. She is a calculating, vengeful queen who seizes power at every opportunity; however, as her story advances, she is revealed as thoroughly human, with an array of traits both positive and negative. Her ruthlessness towards her foes is driven both by her pride and her love for her family.

The villainess archetype can be played straight or subverted, as described; either approach can produce a highly potent character appropriate for any setting or genre. It may appear difficult to repurpose pieces of told-and-retold faerie tales without any persistent staleness. However, with care, faerie tale elements can be boiled down to their essentials and put to use quite effectively. Whatever abstract or literal empire the villainess may rule, she is a salient figure as much at home on Wall Street as an enchanted wood.