Where’s the Joystick on This Novel?

By David Corbett

I’ve been thinking a lot about games lately.

First, they fascinate me, even though I consider most of them pretty disappointing. The potential is mind-blowing, if potentially Orwellian.

Second, I’m realizing I’ve got a lot to learn from the world of games, as writers play a bigger part in game design.

In particular, game designers are learning they neglect story at their peril, just as many writers are learning it’s almost career suicide to ignore the vast appeal of games.

The success of both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises point to J.K. Rowling’s and Suzanne Collins’s ingenious blending of mythic storytelling with video game techniques: specifically, the creation of an elaborate story world much like what you find in games, and a kind of score-keeping element. (Obviously, these aren’t the only two films that use game techniques as essential story elements. Remember Sucker Punch?)

Now, it’s no big secret that I have misgivings about the “mythic” slant on storytelling. I stand much more in the realm of Hemingway and the realist tradition, and I find a lot of so-called “mythic” storytelling with its insistence on “ancient archetypes” to be hokey, unconvincing, and cartoonish. It seems we’re now creating stories based on stories, and that’s never — never — a good sign.

That said: I’m not so dense I can’t tell which way the cultural wind is blowing. And as I said, the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series both employ conspicuously mythic elements: call it the world of sorcery in Harry Potter and the battles to the death of heroic saga in Hunger Games.

These series overcame the limitations of mimicry by translating these mythic stories into new, uniquely imagined places and times: a somewhat undefined present, as with Harry Potter, or the near future, as with Hunger Games. And it was by redefining the mythic contexts in modern terms that the writers did the psychological and emotional reimagining that brought these stories to life.

But it isn’t just the mythic storytelling that made these blockbusters unique. As I said, it was their use of video game elements as well. Specifically, they used the elaborate story worlds that games are known for – what used to be prosaically called setting – and they both employed elements of score-keeping.

First: an elaborate story world. Both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series create unique and fascinating worlds. Those worlds were created lovingly and in painstaking detail. But they were also established over multiple books. Not every novel can do that. Remember, attention spans are diminishing down to an eye blink. You have to make your point powerfully and make it quick or your audience will click on the next distraction.

Get too caught up in establishing your story world and you risk bogging your story down in minutiae at the expense of dramatic movement. Thinking in terms of a multi-book series can help you plan out what elements of the story world get provided to the reader when.

Obviously, this can also be done in a single-volume novel, but the point is: if the story world is elaborate, you have to plan out how you reveal it, and not just provide it in an information dump.

But however you get it out, if there’s one thing the recent blockbusters tell us, it’s that people have not lost their hunger for fully realized and lovingly imagined fictive worlds. The more richly you can imagine the world of your story, the better. If you end up having to insert it with almost surgical precision rather than slather it on like whitewash — that’s writing.

The other game element you find in both stories is score-keeping. Games are built around this, and it’s often a core experience of gameplay: Who wins?

The score-keeping element in Hunger Games is pretty obvious: only one of the contestants survives. The question is: Will it be the protagonist?

In Harry Potter, the score-keeping resides in the fact that, as Harry becomes increasingly adept at wizardry, he rises to successively higher levels of knowledge but also conflict — the more he learns, the more profoundly he’s tested. Just as in a game.

But with Harry we don’t just see a number tallying upward. We see his gravitas increasing as his concern for the world, his embrace of his role not just as wizard but as leader, becomes more profound, responsible, mature. In this regard, novels still provide a more meaningful and emotional richer experience. But clearly the various media are cross-pollinating.

It can be incredibly useful to take your storytelling skills and adapt them to other media. Each one has certain strengths, each has limitations, and solving story problems across different media automatically enhances your ability to look at your story more objectively, so that you can analyze it more critically.

There’s one last element of storytelling in games I’d like to address, because it points to a kind of frontier in narrative, and should provide a brand new world of storytelling opportunities for writers.

As I mentioned up top, designers are learning that players more and more frequently admit that the games they prefer have a distinct story element, and that without this element the game reduces to a mere sequence of challenges and decisions — which in narrative terms, amount to a series of disjointed scenes. There’s no rising action or dramatic tension. There’s just, to use Toynbee’s phrase, “One damn thing after another.”

Writing for games requires the writer, or “narrative designer” as some call themselves, to try as best she can to match up the gameplay (or ludic narrative) with the story narrative. The what and how — with the why.

This problem is easier to state than to solve.  Even the best games suffer from what Clint Hocking has called ludonarrative dissonance — the inability of many games to match the playing experience with the narrative one.

The game he used as an example was Bioshock, which takes place in an underwater city designed as a kind of 1950s Ayn Rand objectivist utopia. Visually, the game is stunning.

Now, the writers hoped to have the game serve as both an example and a critique of the advantages and the limitations of Rand’s objectivist philosophy, which relies solely on rational self-interest. In particular, the designers hoped to demonstrate that the power achieved through rational self-interest is a trap, because power corrupts.

One problem: on the level of the game-playing, rational self-interest was exactly what the player normally needs in order to succeed — indeed, isn’t that what all single-player games are really about, the power gained from focused self-interest?

If the designers wanted to show how this self-involvement corrupts, they’d have to somehow show that by succeeding, you lose.

Not impossible, but a challenge. They didn’t do that, however. Instead, they required the player to go against his own game playing instincts — you could only succeed by helping another character named Atlas who’s goals are opposed to the game’s hero. You can only advance by undermining yourself. That wasn’t what the game’s theme was trying to establish, and so the narrative of the game and the mechanics of the gameplay were at odds.

This is now one of the major narrative problems facing game writers, and it’s an interesting one. They’re being encouraged and invited, finally, to make the writing an integral part of the design and not just something tacked on, like one more effect.

Up to now, reactions — that is, emotions — were often seen as just another bit of flash you built into the story world. More and more games are now trying to shape the story world so that the risks involved in decision-making have an emotional consequence, either through allegiances with other characters or by defining the stakes in some other dramatically significant way — not just in terms of score-keeping.

One great example is Marvel’s CIVIL WAR by Vicarious Visions.

Evan Skolnick, the writer, noted that most games don’t have a first act, or they don’t have a representation of the world as it exists before the events of the story begin. The game begins with the inciting incident — the entrance of the first monster you’re obliged to kill, for example.

But with CIVIL WAR they decided to lay out the full stories of the two warring camps. Rather than have a player decide, “Okay, I’ll be the good guys this time, the bad guys next time,” he instead had to choose sides in a war in which each side had a perfectly logical and defensible reason for its cause. The game required the player to deal with the consequences of choosing which side he wanted to be on.


More and more, we’re going to see games with this kind of thematic and character complexity, and a need to make sure it doesn’t conflict with the gameplay experience. What that means is that there will be work for writers in the video game industry.

The bay area is a major hub of this effort, as are Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, and Montreal. It’s a very tight-knit world, jobs are often acquired on the basis of personal connections, and so networking is crucial. But if any of this interests you, you owe it to yourself to explore the matter a little further, and see if game design isn’t a place where your storytelling skills might not just be welcome, but necessary.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros — do you have a favorite video game? Does it have a truly unique story world? Does it have a narrative element that appeals to your desire for story?

Can you see yourself perhaps turning to game design as away to explore your storytelling skills?

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I can’t Listen to Massive Attack and not envision an alternative world — a story world for a novel or game not yet created — and not just because of how visually voluptuous their live shows are. And what better way to describe the gaming experience than with the title to this song —Bulletproof Love:


12 thoughts on “Where’s the Joystick on This Novel?

  1. Vince

    Great post, David. It's vitally important for writers to consider opportunities in video games — and I'd say that even if I hadn't started working in video games.

    I remain a huge fan of L.A. NOIRE, which after a great deal of fanfare for its technical innovations faded from the radar. It didn't turn up on many "best of 2011" lists. But for all of its shortcomings, it's the first game that seems genuinely novelistic in scope, positing a tragic hero who couldn't outrun his problems no matter how well the player put him through his paces. I cursed the game's clumsy structure more than once — but I'm still haunted by the ending.

  2. Sarah W

    I haven't had much chance to play much in the past few years except Area 51, which is all strategic target shooting, Polar Pool (my older kid is a *shark*) and The Lorax, which is marshmallows and applied physics. Okay, and a little Plants vs. Zombies. Arcade chick, me.

    But I've played a few mystery-based computer games in my time–Grim Fandango is one–where the questions one asks witnesses or sources leads to different areas of the game and one has to follow clues to figure out whodunnit and (more importantly) find the MacGuffin. And there was a Time Travel one where everything you did in the past either fixed (the goal) or broke (whoops) the future. Love those–the worlds are more intricate and I'm far more invested in what happens next.

    My nephews are into the multiplayer online RPGs right now–one of them told me that the worlds of the games could be pretty basic, but the team interactions made up for it.

    And I think it would be a blast to try game design. Not easy, but *fun*.

  3. David Corbett

    Vince: I think a lot of people hoped L.A. NOIRE would be more ground-breaking than it turned out to be, and I wonder if it isn't for the same reason a lot of daring books and films don't find the audiences they might: Someone in the background, someone important but with his or her rear end on the line, loses their nerve, or loses faith in the project, and pulls back from giving it everything it needs to succeed. Or may be word of mouth and buzz just didn't catch on the way people hoped. I'm not sure, but I remember the initial vibe was: this is going to change the landscape.

    Sarah: I wonder how many parents don't gain their entree to games through their kids (or nephews and nieces)? Was that how you got interested?

    I also wonder how many games suffer that trade-off: player interaction (or narrative sophistication) versus story world. How was Grim Fandango in terms of the world it created? Was it a fun place to visit or was it the solution of the crime that drew you in?

  4. Sarah W

    David: I've been hooked since my folks bought an Atari System when I was seven or eight. I still have my Kaboom! badge somewhere. But when Dragon's Lair came out, with the laserdisc graphics and the split-second choices . . . that changed *everything*. I prefer computer games, but probably because the only gaming systems I've ever owned were that Atari console and a first-edition PS we bought because I had a couple gift cards and we could play games and DVDs on it.

    Grim Fandango has a good setting—a sort of noir Halloween Town with some skeleton-themed steampunk (bonepunk?) elements, but I'm not sure it's a 'world' by today's standards. There's extra fun in corners and along the way, but everything guides the player along the crime-solving storyline, so there's not much off-plot exploration available. I would have liked more–what I saw was clever and fascinating.

    My favorite games that aren't puzzle solvers or arcade-based (like time-management, lost object, level-climbers, etc.) are anchored by good, plot-driven stories. I know world-building games (Sims, Second Life, which isn't really a game anymore, if it ever was) are popular, but there has to be more to it.

    My older daughter spends time in the Disney Fairies world, but she's not allowed to talk to anyone in there unless her (vetted face-to-face) friends are also online, so once she's gathered berries, changed her clothes a few dozen times, and decorated her little acorn hut, she's bored–there's no point.

    Then again, if there isn't a world to explore, or enough interactions, options, or extras, once the game is done, it's done. Novels get re-read and sequels are anticipated. Linear plot-based games? Not so much.

    Sorry. I rarely have the opportunity to get my nerd on and the pedantic appears to be hard-wired.

  5. David Corbett

    Sarah: Geez, don't apologize. You're not being pedantic at all.

    I think your comment about re-reading is interesting. Good games clearly invite revisitation, as do the best novels and films. But you create your own ending in a game. The fact novels and films can still inspire people to go back shows that the journey and the world of the story continue to reward even after the suspense element is removed. I think game designers are increasingly looking at the story and the story world as experiences that players enjoy at least as much as the game-playing element. The score becomes irrelevant as long as you love being in that space.

  6. Allison Davis

    My foster son wouldn't read, he was was dislexic and it was difficult but he was an avid video game player. One night I just sat behind him, watching him do what he does, on the headphones, IMing, playing the game, buying weapons, working a keyboard, joy stick, controls, doing about a zillion things, totally into the story, the battle, and then interacting on another level with friends via the headphones and IM talking about the game.

    Made me realize that there's a different route to stories for his generation (he was 16-17 then, 8 years ago) and while completely into the story, the story is live, visual and while interactive, it is also done by yourself in the dark. It was one of those experiences where I walked away and it took a long time to process the information. I desperately wanted to get him to read my way, but saw that he was enveloped by the story, but in his way.

    Then when my niece insisted I read the Hunger Games trilogy (she's 16 now), I am beginning to see the kind of story that holds the facination — it is dramatic, but with meaning, it is action but with consequences. I'm not sure I've sorted it all out but it is definitely a conversation worth having, looking back and forth. My niece, a voracious reader, isn't into video games but has the same aesthetic as my foster son who wouldn't read books, but was an expert gamer. Good thought provoking, get the brain off the the couch potato syndrome and make it exercise post.

    Lastly, I love how you introduce me to music I wouldn't otherwise pay attention to.

  7. Barbie

    My favorite video game? Super Mario 64. Maybe I just haven't grown up, I find it to be that there's no better storytelling than a plumber that needs to save his princess, and, for that, he needs to cross through enchanted worlds and fight all sorts or weird monsters! <3

    I play Super Mario Galaxy, too. And while the storytelling is still fun and creative, I like the 2D graphics better. They don't make me woozy! 🙂

  8. David Corbett

    Allison: Writers need to pay attention to the new way people take in story or get left behind. The biggest challenge I face is how to make sure I keep the pacing brisk and the story hurling forward without sacrificing depth of character or richness of setting. Not the easiest problem to solve. Working on scripts has helped, because you have to learn how to embed back story and setting into the action and the dialog.

    Barbie: Plumbers are the unsung heroes of a great many story worlds, is my guess. They deserve every princess they can get. (I don't know if I'd go looking for one in a sewer, but whatcha gonna do?)

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    This is pretty exciting stuff, David. And it means there will be lots of opportunities for writers who want to "expand their portfolio" as Alex might say. I'm constantly amazed by what my kids are getting out of their video game experiences. The story world is much more complex than I first realized.
    However, there's still one media experience where story isn't valued — the porn film. I don't think anyone cares about character development or three-act structure. Just get us to the climax, my friend.

  10. David Corbett

    Stephen: Let me be the millionth guy to say it — the Internet ruined porn. Unless you mean by porn, well, porn.


    It's not a new problem. Anais Nin wrote her stories for a patron who was constantly griping she was taking too long with the wind-up. Stories? Characters? I want my money shot!

    Are there erotic video games? I'm somewhat glad to realize I have no idea. But if there are, I have an idea they have to be a bit more appealing visually than Triple X Hotshots.

  11. Jake Nantz

    I can't believe I missed this post. I hate it, because being late to the party means I doubt you'll ever see this, but this is exactly the kind of thing I'm about to start analyzing for a former student of mine on the gaming web site he's created. And I L-O-V-E storyline games. You're seriously asking someone to pick a favorite? How? I can give you a small, infinitessimally small portion of the list, but that's about it.

    Mass Effect (all 3)
    The HALO series
    LA Noire
    Max Payne
    Knights of the Old Republic I & II
    Uncharted (all 3)
    Batman Arkham Asylum and Arkham City
    Red Dead Redemption

    Basically, if Bethesda, Rocksteady, Bioware, or Rockstar games makes one, I'm interested. If it's someone else, I'll probably still be interested.

    So glad you wrote this, awesome post!

  12. David Corbett


    Thanks so much, and no, you're not too late (obviously). You've got me really intrigued about what it is you'll be analyzing on your former student's website. Could you send the website's link, or give us parameters so we can Google it? (If your comment won't post because it has a link in it, send the link to me: david at davidcorbett.com and I'll see if I can post it.)

    I'd love to follow the discussion. I think the evolution of story in games — in particular, the evolution of character — is one of the great frontier's of narrative.

    And thanks for the list of faves. I've got some gaming to do.

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