Friday, January 20
The Playing's the Thing: How Computer Games Can Help You With Your Plotting
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?