We writers are one nerdy bunch. Many of us soak up stories through a variety of mediums — TV shows, movies, and video games included.
When I’m not writing or doing freelance work, you can usually find me with a PS4 controller in hand, gallivanting around Hope County on a four-wheeler.
(Any Far Cry fans here? I’m obsessed with New Dawn right now — but that’s a subject for next week’s post.)
Today, I want to share four reasons why writers should play video games. (When I talk about video games, I’m specifically referring to open-world role-playing games [RPGs]. Platformers and similar games probably won’t do much to improve your skills, apart from your hand-eye coordination.)
Gaming sharpens your world-building skills.
World-building is one of the hardest parts of writing a novel — indeed, any story in any medium. We’re writers, not cartographers or geographers. Yet if we want to write a believable story in an immersive fictional world, we must create every element of that world from scratch — and then place them on the page in a way that invites the reader to come and stay awhile.
It’s a big task. I often find myself wishing I could just enter the world I’ve created for my short story collection, walk around and explore it for myself to strengthen its portrayal in the prose.
Playing video games lets you do just that: explore open worlds which have already been created for you. Not only can this give you all kinds of ideas and inspiration for your own story world, but it also provides a sense of depth and dimension.
How big do you want your world to be? What are the main routes or modes of transportation? What does the map look like? What are the landmarks, natural features, etc?
Most video games answer these questions for you — in their own story worlds, obviously — so take advantage of that if you’re feeling uninspired with your world-building efforts.
Gaming offers insight into morality.
Much like interactive fiction, many RPGs offer a variety of decisions, paths, and outcomes for the player character. Depending on which choices you make and which factions you side with, your game’s ending will differ from other players’.
In this way, video games place the player as both character and co-author. The game’s beginning has been written for you, but it’s up to you to decide the ending.
Well-rounded fictional characters should also make tough moral decisions that influence the outcome of the story. However, when writing, it’s just as important to consider the choices your character didn’t make, or could have made, or might’ve made in different circumstances — and how those unwalked paths could’ve changed the story entirely.
Gaming teaches new ways to improve characterization.
Let’s talk about lore elements in video games and how they impact characterization.
Lore items, like books, journals, letters, etc., offer valuable information about the game world’s factions, history, notable people, literature, and so much more for the gamer curious enough about the story to read them.
These lore elements not only enhance the story world’s believability, but they also reveal a lot about the characters who own them.
Lore elements in Skyrim
Take, for example, Joric in Skyrim. This kid is the Jarl of Morthal’s son, so he lives a pretty cozy life in Highmoon Hall.
He also has a copy of The Lusty Argonian Maid hidden under his bed.
This tells us more about Joric than perhaps most of us wanted to know, but this is precisely what makes Joric memorable. (And, at the very least, we get a little chuckle out of the discovery.) If it weren’t for his copy of Skyrim’s most popular smut story, Joric would just be another kid running around Skyrim.
Lore elements in Far Cry: New Dawn
An eccentric character named Bean seems pretty happy-go-lucky when you first talk to him, but when exploring his home, you discover a letter from his dying father on his bedside table. In the letter, his father apologizes for failing to teach him survival techniques and says as long as Bean uses his expertise to help people, he’ll be just fine.
(That’s a super vague summary, but I’m not one to spoil games, so play it for yourself if you want to find out more!)
We know from that letter that Bean chose to pursue his dream, in part, to honor his father, and the fact that he keeps the letter on his bedside table shows how important his father was, and still is, to him.
Why lore elements are key for crafting strong characters
Bean doesn’t tell us that his father was his role model. We find this out by, admittedly, snooping around his house. Afterward, we might simultaneously feel pride and pity for Bean: good on him for following his dream, but poor fella — he must really be suffering after losing his dad.
Death is omnipresent in RPGs like Far Cry: New Dawn, but lore elements like this make a specific character’s death resonate with us more.
So when you’re character building, consider external characterization elements — i.e., snoop around your character’s house. What book is your character hiding under their bed? What does the letter on their bedside table say, and who is it from?
Gaming enhances your aptitude for visual framing.
There’s a reason why “show, don’t tell” remains one of the most popular pieces of advice for writers: because we want our readers to see our story world and characters. We want to transport them to a place they won’t want to leave. If we simply tell them about our world, they’ll lose all interest in our story.
One of my all-time favorite writing bloggers, Well-Storied’s Kristen Kieffer, wrote a powerful post on why writers should think like filmmakers to achieve this, and how to frame scenes visually using film techniques.
The video game medium adds another unique element to visual framing: the first-person point of view. When you play a video game, you can (usually) see and experience the story world through the player character’s eyes — literally.
This opportunity might lead you to consider things you didn’t before in your own story. How does your character see their world? What places or features capture their attention? How does your character’s class status, occupation, etc., influence their perspective?
From there, you can employ visual framing techniques to write impactful scenes that strengthen POV while also engaging the reader’s senses.
All video games start out as a story with plots and characters and settings. However, the interactive, visual elements of video games, specifically RPGs, are what make them such an invaluable resource for writers.
If you’re struggling with world-building or visual framing in your story, step away from the laptop and go play an RPG for a little while. Who knows? You might just solve that pain point in your story in the process!
Not sure which games to play for your story’s genre? Tune in next week as I break down the best video games for writers by genre! Whether you’re writing action, fantasy, or dystopia, I’ve got the perfect game recommendation for you!
Already an avid gamer? Tell me what your favorite game is and why! (Bonus points for fans of the Far Cry franchise.)