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Calling All Writers—Games Are the New Frontier

Boring old stories for video game? Ocarinah.

ocarina of time

The following was originally posted on Mary Lee Sauder’s blog and has been republished with permission.

I live a strange double life, stuck between the diametrically opposed worlds of writing and gaming. When I go to an English class and mention that I’m a gamer, people treat it as a non-sequitur and the chatter moves on to the latest in an ever-growing list of efforts to get John Green to come to campus. But when I go to a game studies class, the conversation (not to mention the gender distribution) completely flips, and I get blank stares or condescending remarks if I try to defend story as an important part of games.

For all the talk of games being a burgeoning art form, these two camps just don’t seem to understand or appreciate one another. And who can blame them? Right now, there is simply no good outreach to writers from games like there is for film or television. A creative writing major graduating this year would have to work very hard and have a lot of other supplemental skills to get hired in the gaming industry, so why would it even be on the average student’s radar?

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Before we go on, I want you, the reader, to play a short Flash game called Today I Die. It’s about suicidal depression (I know, so much fun) and is the best and most concrete example of writing and gameplay working together that I can think of. It will only take a few minutes and it’s free, so go try it out.

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So, how did it go? I would wager a guess that you were confused at first, but if you were persistent in experimenting, you may have been able to free the drowning girl. But there are multiple ways to play and react to this game, so everyone has a different experience. You don’t even have to play through to the end to be able to talk about it. This ability to freely explore a space created by a game is the big unique thing that separates games from other popular media, and it’s perfectly suited for a new kind of storytelling.

Depression is just as crushing and inescapable as the maw of darkness that surrounds the drowning girl in this game. The goal of both the gameplay and the story is to rise to the surface of the ocean and escape the loneliness and terror that lies below. The game decided to use words more as symbols than as part of a structured narrative, and I think that helps the player connect even more to the emotions that the game is trying to invoke. Through the player’s actions, Today I Die weaves its story brilliantly.

See, games and stories don’t work well together when they stick only to what they know. Pretty much any writer will tell you that a story has words and is meant to be experienced from beginning to end. But that’s not the strength of video games, so a writer needs to approach developing a game in a much different way. Today I Die has been called an “interactive poem” because it uses the player’s natural curious exploration to evolve the words onscreen in different ways, and the player’s actions reflect the subject of the story—that is, the struggle to tear oneself out of the pit of depression.

When a writer approaches a game as if it’s a film or a book—that is, a more or less linear narrative with established characters and motivations—the game won’t be stronger for it. The gameplay will probably have very little to do with the story, and the whole thing will come across as a lame knockoff of some imaginary movie or book that could’ve handled the material much better.

This isn’t to say that linear narratives and characters with actual identities have to go out the window. But the story and the gameplay should be developed together so that they complement each other, not separately so that one of the elements feels stapled onto the part that the developers actually cared about. I shouldn’t want to skip through endless cutscenes just to get to the exciting gameplay, or watch all the cinematics on YouTube because the actual game is irrelevant.

And crafting stories for games doesn’t have to mean making sprawling, non-linear narratives with infinite branching paths, either. Let’s shift focus towards The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for a moment. Specifically, let’s talk about the difference between the game and the manga spin-off series created afterwards.

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Ocarina of Time doesn’t have what anyone would call a sprawling, non-linear, etc. storyline. You’re on a hero’s journey straight out of Homer, basically. But that game and its world and characters are so beloved because the player experiences all of it firsthand and paves their own adventure. The plot is still largely linear, but the feeling of getting lost in the Forest Temple and fearing that a ghost could catch you at any second deepens the connection that the player feels with the game’s world. Without using many words at all, Ocarina of Time left an indelible impression on an entire generation of gamers.

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The manga, while not bad in its own right, suffers from its inability to do much with its source’s core gameplay of exploration. The dungeons are reduced to just a few pages of set dressing so that the comic can focus on the character interactions that, by the nature of the medium, it’s much better at doing. The traditional narrative of a book (or comic book, in this case) just can’t capture the unique experience that gameplay and story can create together when executed well—one that’s intense, engaging, and all kinds of fun.

So hey, all you writers out there. Let’s give games another chance. I know that there have only really been a handful of games so far that have done story well, but that’s because the industry has never had an influx of people who understand what it means to create a living, breathing narrative that speaks to those who experience it on a deep and personal level. That’s where we come in. It will take open minds and lots of trial and error, but I think that by bringing these two worlds together, we can stretch the boundaries of what games and stories can become. Let’s break down the doors of the gaming industry and show them that “writer” deserves to be a job title. And then in the future, “writing for games” can become just as respectable as “writing for film.”

You can read more from Mary Lee Sauder on The Story Campaign or follow her on Twitter.

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