February 8, 2012

Can Video Games Teach Us About Writing? Written by David

It's no secret that I'm obsessed with video games (though thankfully not addicted.) As I play through a new game for the first time I'm always on the lookout for what the game is doing to me, whether it be wracking my brain trying to figure out a puzzle, timing jumps perfectly to clear platforms over lava, or challenging me to make tough moral decisions. And yes, there are video games that make you do this.

But I'm not going to talk about those things today. The game I'm going to be talking about today is called Dead Space 2. Sequels in video games are about as common as sequels in movies, and as the years go by, books can quickly be added to this list. That's not a commentary on sequels though. There's no reason a sequel cannot be as good, if not better than an original composition. After all, there's a reason Beethoven has 9 symphonies.

Dead Space falls into the video game category of survival action horror, a category that is as hard to do right as horror movies and suspense novels. You may be wondering what this has to do with writing at this point, so I'm going to break it down into things this game does right, and how they impact writing. And not just for the next hopeful horror writer.

1. Timing.

As yesterday was Charles Dickens birthday, I feel an obligation to include him in this post. But one thing that Dickens did well was timing. Because he had to. He was writing his novels in sections and publishing them in sections in order to make a living. On the one hand this means that inherently his novels are shaped by a need to publish. But much as the starving artist archetype enchants us, as writers I'm pretty sure most of us don't actually want to live that lifestyle. So what did publishing in sections do?

It forced Dickens to right multiple climaxes into his story, so that the reader always wanted more when the next section was published!

One thing that Dead Space (both the original and 2) have done well is timing. This is not what people think of with video games where you run along guns ablaze, mowing down every enemy that comes in your path. Quite the opposite with Dead Space, actually. You don't generally see anything in your path until it's too late.

This is because Dead Space is employing one of the oldest horror trick in the book (don't quote me on that. I don't actually know how far horror traces back.) Suspense. And suspense is all about timing.

In Dead Space, enemies will pop out of the walls. They'll come when they're least expected. They will come out when it is least convenient for you and when it creates the biggest reaction, which in this game is fear. But to relate this back to Dickens, Dickens is doing the same thing. He uses story arcs to guide where your emotions go. He drops plot bombs when plot bombs need to be dropped, but he also leads you along with red herrings where herring needs to be sniffed. Dickens may not be going for the action that a video game is, but he knows that timing is how you work your audience.

Which is what any writer needs to do. I won't stand here and say there's a formula to timing (5 act structure aside) because for every formula there is a way to break it. But there is a science to this timing thing. In order to get the most impact from your audience you need to know when to pull them along with you and when to push them back. You need to know how to manage...

2. Suspense

Imagine a pond in the middle of a field. No wind blows. No sound is uttered. A single pebble falls from the sky, striking the water with a soft ploink sound. Imagine the ripples going across the water, soothing you.


What I just did there was break the tension. Now, I meant to do it in a humorous way, which knowing my jokes has failed miserably but I'm still laughing. But the best way to picture tension while you're writing is with the pond approach. Better still is to imagine what you're writing is a slightly iced over pond. And everything you're writing is weight you're adding to that pond.

It's easy to tell when tension is being used in horror. Generally the soundtrack will fade away. Characters will be visibly agitated. It will have been a while since something scary happens. Horror is known for using this feeling to pull a fast one on audiences by then building the tension and letting nothing happen to allow the audience into a false sense of security.

Dead Space does the opposite. There is no moment to let the tension out (for the most part.) In most games, when you pause the game, the game is paused. In Dead Space, the only action that you as a character can do to stop the game is to bring up the game exit menu. When you access inventory, you're vulnerable. When you save, vulnerable. Everything leaves you open, which means the tension is always there.

What's more, Dead Space combines two great elements into one package. In most horror games, darkness is used extensively to limit vision. Dead Space combines the flashlight with the gun, so every time you try to see better, you are also visually prepared for combat. However, what happens here is that by bringing in the unnerving element of darkness, with the necessity to raise your gun to see, you focus in. Anything that crosses your screen could be an enemy and by looking you are aiming. It also lowers your awareness by forcing you to resist pulling the trigger and waste precious ammo, so that when something breaks through the darkness you falter.

Notice that last word. Hesitate. Horror movie characters don't generally falter. They hold back, but they don't actively stall like deer in headlights. But this is what you need your audience to do, and again I don't just mean in horror. Let's look at a classic, so that when I spoil the ending I don't violate the general rule of not spoiling material.

Anyone not read Where The Red Fern Grows? Then ignore this paragraph. But for those of you who did, how many of you physically faltered while reading the last section of the novel. Did you want to believe what was happening? Did you want to read on, even when you knew what was happening? And most importantly, did you know it was going to happen and find yourself torn anyways?

Maybe it was just my experience there, but even suspecting the ending I was surprised and emotionally jarred by it. And most importantly, I found myself hesitating to read it. This is not a bad thing! Hesitation is not a bad thing! It means that we're surprised and don't know how to react. Which leads to my next point.

3. Fluidity

Great video games are well known for this trait. This is because despite a lust for plot, a video game can be just as entertaining with no plot at all! (Can anyone, gamer or otherwise, tell me the plot of the original Mario game? If you find that too easy, what about Pac Man?) Yet as video games became grander in scale, they began to become grander in plot. So how do you blend plot and game play seamlessly?

If you're looking at Dead Space, pretty seamlessly. This is because the game play is part of the plot! When you wander through an empty room, as a gamer you are doing it to get to the room where your next enemy awaits. But as a story, that empty room is filled with subtle cues that do just as much to tell the story as those little cut scenes.

As an example, the last section of the game I played took me through an apartment building. In one room I found a body watching a projection which was a commercial for the church which brought on the madness that is happening in the game. In the bed there was another body, and after looking around the room I begin to piece together that this was a happy family whose lives have been ruined by the events here. There are still family pictures on the wall. I can tell they had a modest living by the abundance of books and other items in their apartment.

Without the game saying a word or forcing any combat, I am learning more about the story.

As a writer, it is often easy to focus purely on plot and ignore things like setting. Even then, it is easy to overlook the fact that your setting can tell as much of the story as the plot! Here's two less disturbing examples. I want you to see if you can tell the plot of these two stories despite the fact that I mention none of it.

Ex 1: The woman's room was empty, save for the bed she lay upon, and the machines which did the job of living for her. Every breath was accompanied by the wheeze of accordioning plastic. A steady beeping reverberated off of the mute white walls. The nurse entered the room slowly, closing the door behind her with the smallest of clicks. The steel chair that she had occupied the previous day still sat next to the bed, the red cover of the book she had left upon the cushion was the only color interrupting the stillness of the room.

Ex 2: Susan looked around Claire's room with tears in her eyes. A ragged stuffed dalmatian lay on its side across the bed, seeming to blend with the pure white covers. The desk sat covered in dust, a few rectangles of clean wood standing out from the fuzz. Susan trailed her fingers through the dust, before turning to the walls which offered no solace. Tape marks scoffed the walls where posters had once hung. A few nails here and there reminded Susan of spelling bee's, dance competitions, and one glorious concert. She knew, the room would never be the same.

Ok, so there's a few ways these stories could go, but aside from providing a way to invent the word accordioning, I hope you were able to catch how the setting affected the story. How would example one change if the dying woman was surrounded by flowers and pictures? What if she were only sleeping rather than hooked up to machines? What does it say about the nurse that the book is part of the scenery and not part of her action? I'll let you ask the same questions for example two, but I hope you see my point.

Fluidity is not just seamlessly blending together two scenes. Fluidity is connecting every moment of your story, every description of your story. When we break tension we want it to be intentional, not because the weight of the plot is too heavy to stand on the thin ice. The more detail you add, the stronger your ice becomes (though too much detail and it also becomes impossible to break.) In essence, it all becomes a balancing act.

I could go into further detail but I think three examples is enough to show how at least this video game can show writers some techniques they might employ in their own writing. The elements I've described are crucial for anything dealing with horror, but we should always remember that horror is not just hack and slash, it is at its core emotional manipulation. This examples can easily be applied to romance, mystery, political intrigue, or just a story about a man who grows flowers. But if you utilize these elements you may just find that your reader is more than just reading. They're becoming engaged. Because it may not be the death of a novel for a reader to not be engaged, but it is the death of a video game when your audience is disengaged.

David is one of the founders and editors of Obsession Literary Magazine and the maintainer of Obsession's blog.

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