Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Applying Video Games to Writing

Fantasy video games, like fantasy novels, are fairly substantial sellers in the marketplace. Final Fantasy, StarOcean, and Baldur's Gate are just a few of the bigger titles that immediately come to mind.

An interesting point is that many of the same things fantasy role-playing gamers enjoy are also inherent in fantasy novels -- expansive world-building, stellar characterization, and an engaging storyline are among the characteristics required to make a fantasy video game popular. Unless you're talking about the Final Fantasy series. The spectacularly bad writing/cheesy storylines are part of the appeal for those games. Personally I think it's a case of translation decay -- the games are written in Japanese and then translated to English without (it appears) any sort of rewording of the dialogue.

Games like Dragon Age: Origins, a beautiful dark fantasy from BioWare, are possessed of all the above qualities and become wildly popular as a result. Of course, Dragon Age is also billed as a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, one of the biggest selling RPGs in recent history.

What can we writers learn from these video games?

One fact stands out. In non-sports games, story trumps everything. People will tolerate mediocre/cliched writing if the story is spit-shined to a high gleam; heck they'll even spend hours of their time if some of the mechanics are wonky (my wife's complaint about the Dragon Age combat system) so long as the story is fascinating enough.

Don't misunderstand me -- a book written in green crayon on 2-ply toilet paper won't sell even if it's the next Twilight -- and you need to have a basic understanding of good grammar, depth of characterization, and how to evoke emotion, but all those concepts are secondary to having an interesting story.

You can fix practically everything in your writing. Except the lack of an interesting story. Focus on developing that first, and you're well on your way to a big seller.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I think one of the only video games I've played with a bit of a story behind it is Legend of Zelda. I'm a girlie gamer- I like games like The Sims and Harvest Moon, although I haven't played any in years.

Matthew Delman said...

Stephanie --

I don't really like the classification of "girl games" vs. "boy games" -- mostly because it's an oversimplification of the audience. My wife, for example, plays either kind of game depending on her mood.

P.S. Did you get that email?

Valerie Geary said...

I bought my husband Resident Evil 4 for his Bday... he was playing it the other night and I happened to be in the room. The dialogue was... um... well... needless to say, it was lacking. And I thought: "hmm... I think I found my new calling as a writer." :)

Matthew Delman said...

Valerie --

Yeah, the main draw of the RE series is a combination of the gameplay and getting to kill zombies with a rocket launcher. The dialogue in the entire series pretty much blows.

Davin Malasarn said...

Great post, Matthew! I had to read it as soon as I saw the title. I've been afraid to admit this, but a lot of time when I'm writing I do think of video games--not that I have time to play them anymore these days. But, I often think about why those games were so engaging, and I try to use those devices in my writing.

Susan R. Mills said...

I totally agree. Interesting story trumps everything. I love the way you pointed out that everything else can be fixed, but boring can't. That's so true. And, hey, you finally actually posted something about video games. :)

Matthew Delman said...

Davin --

Thank you for the praise, sir. It's also worth noting that the people who compose video game storylines don't appear as afraid of using cliches as the people who write novels are. Whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate, however.

Susan --

That's enough sass out of you, Mills. :P

The judges have been thoroughly entertained by your entry, by the way.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I love the way you used video games to make your point. I totally agree with you. I see it all the time with my high school students (esp. boys). They will definitely forgive a lot for a great story! :)

Joshua McCune said...

There are certain rules to writing that annoy me -- like the limitation on cliches -- sure, cliches may be 'lazy' writing, but your target audience might need cliches. Same thing goes for voice vs. plot... I think the former is more critical than the latter (ideally, you want both, I know), but the whole 'voice' thing is overblown, IMO (yeah, i might just be a bit bitter b/c rejections I've had have mentioned things about my voice :)

Joshua McCune said...

Um, that would be latter more critical than former... my mind's on Mars today.

Deb said...

Story is important, when it comes to RPG's I'm a big fan of the character building aspect.

Oh, and I'm glad Bane cleared up the former, latter, critical issue, I was confused :)

Adam Heine said...

It's a good point. I've read a lot of published books that were lacking a lot of the things we're taught in the query trenches. But what they had was an amazing concept/story. I'm looking at you, Jim Butcher.