What Video Games Taught Me About Speculative Fiction Writing

By Joshua A. Johnston

I’ve being playing video games since I was a kid. As a child of the 1980s, my earliest gaming happened on a TRS-80 with a tape drive, followed a few years later by a DOS-based PC. My first console was an NES, which I received—along with a stern lecture from my father about not playing it too much—not long after the system released in North America.

From the beginning, it was clear that games with more involved storylines appealed to me, such as Zork or Final Fantasy. I didn’t mind playing games like Zaxxon or Super Mario Bros., but they weren’t my favored games. In fact, my childhood brain would concoct elaborate storylines to supplement the action on-screen; my basement became the launch pad for me, pretending to me Mario, to sail off to different lands in the Mushroom Kingdom. Some people like games that function as diversions, but I prefered games that were more like literature.

Gaming helped pull me into writing. At first, it was in the form of creative nonfiction with the video game site Nintendojo, where I mused on the stories of others. Later on, I was inspired to make my own stories as a science fiction novelist with Enclave.

Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way.


A Grand Premise Is a Great Hook

In video games, the most powerful stories begin with a premise that sucks you in right from the start. More than a few games have won me over this way. Maybe the best example is the 1995 SNES classic Chrono Trigger, which leads off with a captivating montage of characters and moments from later on: a cast of seven epic heroes, some truly powerful villains, and exotic locations, all wrapped around an intriguing time travel storyline. But simple can work, too: you know Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is going to be good just from what you hear in the menu.

There’s a bit of vision-casting that goes into novel writing, too. Again, the premise doesn’t have to be complicated or even completely original—in fact, an overly complex premise can be a killer—but the best speculative fiction beginnings foreshadow something great, whether it’s Dune’s expansive galactic politics or the “dark and stormy night” of A Wrinkle in Time.


The Plot Works When the Puzzle Fits

A good plot is a puzzle whose pieces go together in a way that is seamless. This is an area where writing a script for a game can be harder than writing a novel, since a game may have to account for branching pathways or sidequests that may occur in an order independent from the main quest. Script it wrong, and you can have scenes that make no sense because they’re out of order or predicated on events that never happened. On top of that, many plot-centric role playing video games come out of Japan, so you have the additional burden of making sure it’s translated in a way that is both true to the plot but understandable to a Western audience. (A butchered translation is a fast track to infamy.)

So there is something satisfying in gaming when you get a tightly-woven, lucid plot. One example that comes to mind is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a 2003 game that is arguably better than many of the Star Wars films. The plot in KOTOR was an interlocking puzzle that seamlessly threaded an epic opening, several planets, and a mid-game plot twist that blew the mind of everyone who played it. I had to go back and play it again just to see, once more, how it all fit.

The same goes for novels. There has to be a continuity and flow that doesn’t make you scratch your head and wonder what’s going on. Sadly, I’ve read novels where it seemed like the author was just spitballing ideas to move their characters along rather than trying to make a cohesive story, and it was painful. On the other hand, I remember having that “ahh, it makes sense now” feeling after finishing Orson Scott Card’s meticulously plotted Ender’s Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead.


Pacing Matters

If game writers have it harder on plot, they can have it easier on pacing. The reason? Most games aren’t just about the story. They usually have other game elements that entertain beyond plot: in most RPGs, you can pass the time engaging in all sorts of activities, including traveling, exploring, trading, talking, and, of course, fighting. Books, by contrast, don’t have that luxury, since in a book, the plot is the action.

Still, even games illustrate just how important it is to move things along. Kingdom Hearts, the first game in the beloved franchise, had an opening island chapter that, while not all that long in real time, felt long because it was slow and devoid of any real action. The purpose was to set the stage for the rest of the game, but even on subsequent playthroughs Destiny Island reminded me of everything I hate about fetch quests.

We’ve all read books with terrible pacing. I won’t call out specific example, but you know what I’m talking about … the ones that never get going in the beginning or, more commonly, slow to a crawl in the middle. On the other hand, I recently read Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and found it a brisk, well-paced read, which is impressive given that it was, quite literally, a thousand pages long.


The Protagonist Needs to Be Worth Rooting For

In 2008, I sunk my teeth into a Japanese role-playing game called Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, a sequel to the popular 2004 GameCube RPG Tales of Symphonia. Dawn of the New World had nice graphics, a cool combat system, the ability to recruit monsters to your party, a plotline that continued what happened in the GameCube game, and a protagonist with some truly awesome powers.

The protagonist was also an annoying brat.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a flawed protagonist, but it’s important to give them some redeeming hook that gives your readers something to cheer for in spite of his or her flaws. And the more flawed they are, the more awesome the redeeming hook had better be, because there’s nothing more frustrating than wishing a main character would just go ahead and die already, because that’s no good.

A good story has a hero worth rooting for, even in their flaws. Winston Smith was just an everyman, but anyone who read 1984 hoped against hope that he would prevail against Big Brother. By the same token, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is anything but competent, but somehow he’s endearing enough that we’re glad he survived the building of that intergalactic highway.

What about you? What has gaming taught you about writing?


Joshua A. Johnston
A novelist, writer, and ruminator, Joshua writes on a variety of topics, including science fiction, video games, parenting, and even Aldi. By day, he teaches teach American history and American government. He is the author of the science fiction novel Edge of Oblivion. You can find him online at www.joshuaajohnston.com.

4 Responses to What Video Games Taught Me About Speculative Fiction Writing

  1. Selina January 20, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

    The importance of rising stakes. Nothing is more likely to make me go “oh, shoot, I’ve been playing WAY longer than I intended” than a campaign/quest that just keeps getting more intense. The way a dramatic cutscene draws you in to the story when you realize “oh, this problem is WAY BIGGER than it seemed.” That sense of panic and concern when you wander into a boss battle and just look at the screen and go, *gulp* “I’m gonna die.” To get even close to that level of adrenaline for a character in a book–where you genuinely fear for them and wonder how on /earth/ are they getting out of this–is rare. But those tend to be the books you can’t possibly put down.

  2. Stephen January 29, 2018 at 10:37 pm #

    Dragon Quest 3 (old Nintendo) has the place where you just pick up heroes to go along an adventure with you. That’s terrible story telling, and since then DQ and Final Fantasy games all have a much more organic story telling element to finding your teammates. Yet, I find the idea of just picking up a few like minded adventurers to go questing to be completely natural. That’s basically what happens in MMORPGs or even guilding in the free games on our phones. We all want an adventure. We all just need to find the right team members, and that Zoma baddie won’t stand a chance.

  3. Vanessa Burton February 16, 2018 at 6:53 am #

    I grew up playing NES and Nintendo 64 before going to game boy color! I still remember getting frustrated at the dog who laughed at me during Duck Hunt. This was a really cool perspective for me! As I’ve played more sophisticated games, I never correlated a successful game with an intriguing plot! Thanks for the info!

  4. Anna February 16, 2018 at 8:04 am #

    I remember growing up with the Super Nintendo and always begging to see “scenes”, which would explain something about the characters. One of our favorites was “Jimmy” from Street Fighter. Action was great, but I wanted more story; I wanted a reason to cheer for Chun-Li.
    My favorite part of your blog was when you mentioned KOTOR. Best game ever!!! I remember being blown away and feeling dumb for not having figured out. . .how not to spoil. . .my character’s true identity. And the game’s initial intro definitely sucked me in; not to mention it was my intro to role playing where I got to make decisions and choose my dialogue. The story inspired me to write as I filled in the blanks and thought of before and after the game’s timeline.
    Anyway, thank you for sharing with us!

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