Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 2)

Hello internet!

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.

My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.

So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.

I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…

Throdnar 1

…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…

Throdnar 2

…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.

Throdnar 4

I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.

Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.

For those interested, it works a little like this:

Throdnar 5

Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.

Throdnar 6

Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.

Throdnar 7

Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health

Throdnar 8

Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…

And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.

Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories.  I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.

But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.

I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?”  Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.

I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.

One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?

My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.

Elasmotherium
I speculate that ‘elasmotherium’ means ‘hairy rhino of death’ in latin

I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik.  “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.

So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?

I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.

I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.

I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.

Short Story: Lakebed

Hello, internet!

None of my usual meandering thoughtpieces this week. Instead, I present a short story!  The original idea was actually based on Tobias’ story prompt from yesterday – the idea of magic versus science – but in the execution, I never actually got as far as introducing magic. Perhaps I’ll post the next instalment some time in the future. Enjoy!


LAKEBED

underwater starship

Putting the Canyon Diver on the bottom of a lake really hadn’t been the best start to Maz’s day.

After she’d checked herself for broken bones and made sure that the cockpit was still watertight, she’d spent nearly an hour trying to cold-start the TC drive and put the spark of life back into her engines, swearing at the Canyon Diver in four different languages and fighting with the ignition switches until her thumbs were raw. She only gave up hope when the batteries ran dry and the cockpit lights cut out, plunging her into abject darkness. She heard the fading whine of the atmospheric reconditioner cycling down, and she knew that she was totally fucked.

Pragmatically, she only had about fifteen minutes before she ran out of air. She sat for a long moment with her boots on the pedals and her hands on the control columns, staring into the abyss, until a voice in her head told her that she was going to have to leave the ship behind if she wanted to live. Her bones screamed in protest. But what were the alternatives? She was half-buried in lakebed muck under fifty feet of water, with no power and no oxygen. There was an emergency beacon in her survival kit, but if she set it off, she’d only attract the same Seven Systems cruiser that shot her down in the first place. She wasn’t much of a martyr, but being captured would only lead to her being handed over to the praetorians. Oxygen deprivation would be a far more comfortable death.

With no power, there was only one way out. She managed to make her hands unclench from the controls, then to unbuckle her harness, and grope beneath her seat for the survival kit. She tried not to think about what she was doing. Or about how long she’d owned the Canyon Diver. Or about how it had been a gift from Hera, to apologise for a row they’d had, a few weeks before Hera got herself killed. Or about how it had saved her life twenty times over since then, even though she didn’t fly it half as well as Hera ever did. The little ship’s bright blue hull had acquired a lot more scratches, dents, pockmarks and plasma burns since Maz became its pilot.

She was biting back tears by the time she got the survival kit open, but she managed not to cry or vomit. There would be plenty of time for crying and vomiting once she wasn’t at the bottom of a lake.

The kit folded out into pouches and strips of webbing, which she slipped awkwardly over her shoulders, hitting her elbow against the Canyon Diver’s canopy in the process. It made her stomach clench to think that she’d never hit her elbow on that canopy ever again. Unless she did it in the last five minutes, which was more plausible than she cared to admit.

Once the kit was fastened up she reached to her hip and pulled out her Aegis multitool from its holster, taking comfort from its pebble smoothness against her hand. The status light flashed, casting the whole cockpit in a momentary green light, to show that the biolock recognised her DNA. She thanked the Sisters for that small mercy. Now would have been a terrible time for her Aegis to break.

The first thing she did was to switch on the tools’ flashlight setting. Light returned, white and blinding. Once she’d blinked away the afterimage from her retinas, she moved the light over the small panel of analogue instruments on the control bank. The lake had been broiling around her when the Canyon Diver plunged into it, still hot from its descent through the atmosphere, but now the water temperature was dropping again. Once she was out she’d have to get on dry land and warm herself up as quickly as possible.

But first she had to get there. Which meant getting outside the ship. The water pressure outside the hull wasn’t registering as high enough to crush her to death or break any ribs, but it would be too great for her to open any of the hatches. She had to equalise the pressure first. And she could only think of one way to do that, off the top of her head.

If she thought of another, more sensible way, sometime later, she was going to feel really stupid.

She ran her thumb over the controls on her Aegis to activate the tool’s photon maser setting. Then she took a few deep breaths, looked around the Cave Diver for the last time, and thought about Hera.

Hera had been an awful, wonderful human being. Maz hated her, most of all for getting herself killed.

Maz aimed the Aegis, squeezed the trigger, and blew a giant hole in the canopy. Part of her imagined that she was shooting Hera. But then frigid water hit her in the face like a five-tonne block of ice.

Character Challenge: A Fresh New Spin

Adaptations and retellings of stories have been around for probably almost as long as storytelling itself. Sometimes we think it’s a relatively new phenomenon, given how much of Hollywood’s output these consists of reboots, remakes, and sequels these days, and how little of it is comprised of original ideas. But really, with ancient epics and legends being passed down orally from one generation to the next, with classics from the Greek myths to Shakespeare’s plays drawing large influences from stories that were already well-known in their cultures, the practice has been a major tradition for a long time.

Sure, all the retelling and rebooting can certainly be overdone, and not every new story that comes out of it is a winner. But still, there’s a reason why retellings and adaptations hold a certain appeal, both for audiences and for writers. It allows the opportunity to take something that people already like and look at it in a new way, or for a new writer to put his or her own personal spin on it. The oral storyteller can elaborate or expand on the story the previous generation told him by using his own unique storytelling style. A new director can take a superhero or cultural icon who’s been around for decades and try to make the character fresh and original for a new audience. While we sometimes praise original ideas more simply because of their originality, there’s still a certain appeal to taking something that already exists and making it new, or making it our own.

The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character's backstory. And it's been pretty good so far!
The whole reason the show Gotham exists is because someone decided to elaborate on a supporting character’s backstory. And it’s been pretty good so far!

Of course, there are countless examples in our culture, but the one that got me thinking about this concept recently was exodus-posterExodus: Gods and Kings. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I want to, despite whatever surrounding controversy there may be from various groups. But in the wake of recent films such as Exodus and Noah, I wrote a post on my blog about the next biblical adaptations I’d like to see if this trend continues. And that got me thinking of how, sometimes, a well-developed adaptation with very complex and human characters can be fleshed out based on very little. While the Exodus is a fairly significant portion of the Old Testament’s narrative, Noah’s story is confined to only a few chapters in Genesis, and yet a full-length movie was made about him. The same can be said of Jonah, one of the other suggestions I made in my post. A whole full-length film could potentially be made out of the Bible’s short account and relatively sparse descriptions of character development.

Based on this trend in books, movies, and more, your challenge is to take a pre-existing character–from literature, film, history, religion, or whatever you want–and flesh them out more or add on to their story. You may want to choose a minor or more obscure character so you’ll have more liberty to be creative and more ground to cover that hasn’t already been taken by the main character. If you don’t know much about your character yet, then figure it out or make it up based on what little you do know. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What is this characters’ motivation? What are his or her goals or desires?
  • Why does the character want this goal? Is there anything that happened in their life to set them on this path? (Remember, drawn-out origin stories are all the rage these days.)
  • What will your character do to meet his or her or goals? What lengths will they go to?
  • Are there any conflicting desires or interal struggles? If so, why, and how will your character deal with them?
  • How does this character see others? What are their relationships like with other people? (You can use characters from the work you’ve already chosen, or, if not many are available, then make up some significant relationships of your own.)
  • Are there any other quirks or interesting personality traits that your character might reasonably have?

Of course, there are plenty of other aspects of character you can flesh out and explore, but these are a few that might be especially helpful in elaborating on a lesser-known character who someone else has already created.

Once you feel like you know your character fairly well, write a short scene (or, if you’re up for it, maybe the beginnings of a longer project) focusing on this character. Are they going about their normal daily life, or maybe beginning a grand adventure that will define them in the long term? You decide! Use what you know about the character and follow their activities with your writing. Make sure to be creative along the way!

Hurricane Sandy Challenge Post

Well, Katherine Jones was going to have another post for today, but she’s directly in the path of Hurricane Sandy and has been spending all of her time preparing for the storm. I honestly have been thinking for most of the day about what to write here, and I still have nothing. However, I am very excited to see what happens with the Frankenstorm! I’ve lived in both New Hampshire and Virginia Beach, and so I’m no stranger to either nor’easters or hurricanes, but a mix of the two has me excited. Don’t get me wrong, I feel for anyone who is in the direct path of the storm. I’m only likely to get hit by the edge, if anything, but I thought this might be a good idea for a challenge post. However, this isn’t your normal challenge post. Often in fiction we anthropomorphise (or give human qualities to) animals, plants, landscape features, and even weather. So, your challenge today is to turn Hurricane Sandy into a workable character. You can write a story from the hurricane’s point of view, or you could just work-up a lengthy character sketch. However, you must actually anthropomorphise the hurricane, and in doing so you must explain its reasoning for threatening much of the eastern seaboard. Have fun with this challenge, and make it interesting!

Theme Challenge of the Week

Ok, so… another late post. Only half an hour, but in my defense I didn’t finish work until almost 11 tonight. Anyway, you should know the rules, and if you don’t you can check the post from last Monday, because I’m sure I have them in it. Basically, write a story of 500 words or less based on the theme given in the post… wow… that was easy, maybe I’ll just make those the new rules.

Your theme: Fear of Life

A lot of people are more afraid of living than they are of dying. So, this is your theme. Write a story about being afraid of life.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Am I still sick? Yes. Is it because I’m writing this post about five minutes after I wrote last weeks scene challenge? Yes.  You’ve got to love wordpress style post scheduling.  Anyway, again, please forgive excess typos.  I’m trying to avoid them, and I’m hoping I succeed.  If you’re new, or you just don’t pay attention because I provide them every week, here are the rules:  I provide you with the beginning of a scene (from a phrase to two sentences) and you finish it.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your scene: ‘Hitori smoothed the folds of his old, worn hakama, and then knelt…’

Ok, this obviously has a Japanese theme, and if you don’t know anything about Japanese culture, then you might want to avoid it.  However, studying up a little and trying to write a story off of this might not be a bad idea.  Remember that as a writer you will often run into situations where you need to do a lot of research to make your writing believable.  This is a good chance to practice.

Story Challenge of the Week

Alright, I’m sure that last week garnered some interesting stories, although I probably haven’t seen most of them.  Hopefully this week will be just as good.  So, you all know the rules: You must write a story of at least a hundred words, and not more than five hundred (if you want to post it as a comment – if it’s just for yourself, then it can be as long as you want).  The story must be about the theme given in this post.  So,  if the theme I give you is Life, don’t write a story about the lord of the underworld.  If the theme is War, don’t write a story about a farmer planting his crops.  Themes are very broad, so it really shouldn’t be hard to stay within a given theme, but I teach, so I know that some people have trouble with this.

Your theme: Unnatural Silence

So, I have to admit that this was somewhat inspired by an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  However, I would very much like to NOT see that story line written out in the stories submitted.

Scene Challenge of the Week

It’s another scene challenge kind of day! I’m a little bit sick as I right this (and by a little bit I mean on drugs, light-headed, and possibly running a fever), so please forgive me if there are a few more typos than normal.  Anyway, you all should know the rule, but just in case:  I provide you with the beginning of a scene (from a phrase to two sentences) and you finish it.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your scene: ‘Agnal mouthed words of power, though no sound emerged from his throat, and raised his hands…’

Alright, have fun!

Story Challenge of the Week

This picture was too perfect not to borrow. This is by Mijka who’s page on deviantart is very interesting.

Another Monday, and the first Monday of September at that.  If I’m not mistaken today is Labor Day, which means that a lot of you probably have the day off (at least if you’re in the states).  So, enjoy your day off by writing a story! You know the rules, but I try to be cautious: You must write a story of at least a hundred words, and not more than five hundred (if you want to post it as a comment – if it’s just for yourself, then it can be as long as you want).  The story must be about the theme given in this post.  So,  if the theme I give you is Life, don’t write a story about the lord of the underworld.  If the theme is War, don’t write a story about a farmer planting his crops.  Themes are very broad, so it really shouldn’t be hard to stay within a given theme, but I teach, so I know that some people have trouble with this.

Your theme: The Devil’s Day Off

I thought this would make an interesting theme.  Don’t feel like you need to use a strictly Christian interpretation of the Devil here.

Scene Challenge of the Week

Well, amazingly enough it is time for another scene challenge.  Exactly one week from the last scene challenge.  Who knew that Wednesdays come around every week? And… who’s counted how many times I’ve used that joke? Seriously it must be in the double digits by now.  Anyway, you know the rules, so here you go:  I provide you with the beginning of a scene (from a phrase to two sentences) and you finish it.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your scene: ‘Alexandra stared up at the massive structure of wood and concrete blocks.  It was covered in piles of paper, many of them glued together inside strange looking pictures.  “I can climb it!” She said to herself.’

So… I just got a couple of cats and this is, admittedly, inspired by one of them.  So, you can use that viewpoint, or make up something completely different.  Have fun!