Friday, January 20, 2012

The Playing's the Thing: How Computer Games Can Help You With Your Plotting

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I took some time off over the holidays and played a lot of computer games. I mean, a lot. Two in particular occupied my time--Skyrim and Star Wars: The Old Republic--and both incorporated storytelling techniques into their gameplay that worked as wonderful examples of common plotting problems.

Game One: Skyrim
Skyrim is the latest in a long series, and the world is as rich and defined as any novel's. It almost plays like an interactive book, because you create a character who is then put into a general storyline, and you go forth and make your own choices about how you want to exist in this world.

The general premise is you're someone with a hidden ability and destiny, who gets dumped into the middle of a civil war. There is a main storyline (the premise), but what you choose to do is up to you (the plot). How you play affects the game and the story.

The hubby went the hero route. He chose a character of the local race, joined the established government, and fought to defend the imperials from the rebels trying to destroy it, all the while using his hidden destiny (and powers) for the benefit of the imperials.

I went the other way. I chose an outsider (a lizard girl), joined the thieves guild, robed the continent blind, ended up with the assassins and eventually joined the rebels to overthrow the government. I explored my hidden destiny as a way to be able to steal more stuff and gain more power.

As you can see, two vastly different stories.

Skyrim's gameplay is a perfect example of how the protagonist drives the story. Same game, same problems, but the main character made the game (and thus the story) a very different experience. If every choice, no matter who you were, turned out the same, the hero of the story wouldn't have mattered. (a common problem with premise novels)

Who you protag is and what they do should matter to your plot. Their actions should determine what happens and why, and things should change by what they do.

Game Two: Star Wars: The Old Republic
The other game was an MMO (a massive multiplayer online game, where thousands are playing at the same time online). Same basic structure as Skyrim, in that you choose a character and are assigned tasks (quests) to a bigger storyline. SW:TOR is different in that everyone is basically going to do the same things. But how you choose to play your character is up to you.

When you talk to characters in the game (these are all done with animated sequences so you feel like you're watching a movie), you get several choices on how to respond. Usually it's the "yes sir, no sir" compliant answer, the defy authority answer, or the neutral gather info answer. Sometimes you get to choose between the dark and light side (good and evil).

I choose to play an agent in the service of the Empire (the evil side). I made a few choices early on that made me realize my character didn't like the Sith (the evil Jedi). She really didn't like it when they interfered in her intelligence missions.

Maybe it's just the writer in me, but I wanted to figure out this character before I continued playing her. Why did she believe in the Empire but not the Sith? What motivated her? I treated her same as I would one of my own characters. Understanding her would make her more fun to play. I'd get to see how her decisions affected the story.

I decided that she believed in the order and stability of the Empire, but felt the Sith were going about it the wrong way. So anytime she's faced with a choice, she chooses what would be best for the empire. If she gets an opportunity to mess up the Sith's plans, she takes it (as long as it doesn't jeopardize the Empire's mission)

There have been choices in the game that made me cringe when I clicked the option on what to do. They weren't things I would have done, and the good person in me wanted to do the right thing. But my character walks a different path than I do, and she'd never make those choices. While I might want to save the poor tortured soldiers trapped inside a mechanical body, she'd do whatever it took to ensure the Empire is victorious over those rebel scum. Even if that means sending those soldiers to the Empire to use as weapons.

This is a great example of how the beliefs of a character motivate that character and determine their actions. It isn't what you as the author would do, but what your character would do. What they believe in, what they feel strongly about, what they care about is what drives them and influences their choices.

Even better, sometimes those beliefs are challenged or conflicted and they have to work within and around issues they disagree with. They might even have to do something they dislike to achieve what they really want.

You can find storytelling tips and examples in the oddest of places, but there are many ways to tell a tale. Even inside a game.

Have you ever learned anything from a game? Do you create characters who make their own choices or follow the script of the plot? Does your protag have reasons for acting, and do those reasons sometimes cause them trouble?


  1. I don't play video games often, and when I do I usually crank down the difficulty so I can get on with the story.

    My favourite series has been Mass Effect. Although the general goal of your hero, Commander Shepard, remains the same (save the galaxy), how you do it is open for countless different options ranging from "straight-taking, upright, heroic solider" to "reporter-punching, back-talking, arrogant bastard." These choices have consequences running through the whole series and can make certain challenges easier or tougher, with no way of knowing for certain until it's too late to go back.

    The series' third and final installment is due out in a couple of months, and everyone I know who plays it is talking about how "their Shepard" is prepared for the final battle and the kinds of choices they make.

  2. Elizabeth Dunn1/20/2012 7:20 AM

    Is this the future of the novel? I have often wondered. Janice, I could see you writing your own video game - they sell millions! Why don't you go for it?!

  3. I agree! Just last summer, I realized just how much the RPGs affected my way of thinking and therefore my writing. While two of my favorite games- Tales of Vesperia and Tales of the Abyss- don't make plot-altering decisions, I do get an in depth view of people in general. It's interesting how these two games both have the world-saving plot and yet offer a diverse set of characters with different personalities.

    Talking about this makes me want to play the games again.

  4. -raises imaginary controller-

    I find that Team Fortress 2 is great in terms of characters.

  5. Ack! I didn't need a valid reason to play more computer games! I love these things, but I have OCD about them and can't stop playing until I finish, which can wipe out a whole weekend or week. I've played the other Elder Scrolls so now you've got me jonesing for Skyrim :( Maybe it can be my reward for doing my final polish and sending out my first round of query letters...

  6. I cannot believe how much video games helps my students understand motifs, arcs, protag and antag AND Greek mythology!

    However, I'm not sure how much Lego Harry Potter will help me.

  7. This post immediately made me think my DnD playing days, which certainly helped. When I'm stuck, I'll often think of what I'd do if I were playing such-and-such character. Helps me come up with the smartest, in-character choices.

  8. Oh-ho-ho, Janice plays bad girls. ;)

    Your second point is perhaps the most fascinating facet of writerdom to me. I almost get giddy when I get to make a character make different choices from what I would do. It's a very strange, writing from the I said - I did point of view and yet doing things I would never do. And... fun. Very fun.

  9. Love SWTOR - and everything else by Bioware. They have such great writers.

  10. Paul, I usually play on easy mode myself. A friend of mine loves Mass Effect, though I haven't tried it yet. I'll have to try that one next.

    Elizabeth D, probably not the future of the novel, but storytelling does evolve, and games are just one more place to tell a story. It would be fun to write the story behind a game :)

    Gellie, I think my years of playing RPGs really helped me develop my plotting skills. It's all about characters facing a problem and figuring out how to solve it.

    CO, I'll have to try that one,too :)

    Angela, totally use it as a reward :) If you start it, you won;t want to stop for a while. It's a great ad addictive game.

    Tasha, I have several friends with elementary school aged kids and they say games help with reading comprehension, so I can easily see kids learning more playing them.

    Lego Harry Potter is perfect for letting your brain disengage from the writing so your subconscious can work out difficult plot problems. :)

    MK, great idea, and one that works even when you aren't stuck. Gaming has a lot of the same skills as writing.

    Kathrine, I'm so the bad girl in games :) They let me get my evil on. You're right though, that is one of the fun things about writing. We can be totally different people.

    Elizabeth B, they put out some fun games. I'm actually at a part in the game where I'm worried about an asset. I just know he's going to get into trouble and I'll have to kill him or let him die and I really don't want to, LOL.

  11. I love Skyrim. It took me forever to choose my character because I wanted to make sure I knew her story, her strengths, and her weaknesses first. And then, once I started playing her, I needed to know: what's her favorite weapon, or does she prefer magic? Does she care about the civil war? Is she a cold-hearted murderer, or a lone hero?

    I made two characters and went completely separate paths.

    It must be the writer in me wanting to know so much about a game character (I also think that's what draws me to the game)

    Anyways, I liked that you mentioned the fact that if the story is the same no matter what the character, then what's the point of your main character.
    Awesome post.

  12. Dani, I spend forever during character creation no matter what the game. :) Gotta be a writer trait.

  13. I've been trying to put together my own thoughts for SWTOR and lessons for storytellers. There are so many wonderful techniques they use.

    My favorite so far was doing a class mission... At a certain point, my character made the transition from doing what she was told by her mentor to taking own her own projects. Instead of meetings with the boss, it was calling her companions together and brainstorming what to do next. And that was the point where my obsession with the story took over. Even though the actual micro-missions were the norm (go here, loot this thing) the writing made it feel so important to the character. Instant hook by making my character "active." Brilliant story psychology on Bioware's part.

  14. Barb, that's so cool, I haven't gotten there yet (or my class doesn't do that). I've been very impressed with the story telling in SWTOR. To keep you engaged takes a lot of work, both in the writing and voice acting. I don't know if it would be as compelling with bad voice work. The "characters" wouldn't be the same.

  15. Bioware's works are so perfect. I love them.