It wasn’t so long ago that the venerable and brilliant film critic Roger Ebert condemned video games as something that could never be art. His reasoning was that video games must be won—they’re competitive, points-based, and are… well, games.
Here, if nowhere else, Ebert was wrong. Games don’t have to be about levelling up, shooting bad guys, or amassing points—sometimes, they’re simply interactive experiences, and can tell incredible stories in a way that no other medium can.
Such games can teach us creatives a thing or two about how great storytelling relies on exploiting the medium you’re working with. Just as games rely on sound, vision, and interactivity, books rely on words arranged in a linear order. Writers don’t often think about how they can get the best from this limited form, but they should.
I’m going to look at three video games released in the past decade that I think have told their stories using innovative, unique, and startlingly effective methods that often rely on the kind of emergent, player-driven storytelling only possible in games. From there, I’m going to extract and distil any lessons that I think writers will find useful in crafting written stories.
. . . .
Dark Souls (2011)
On the surface, Dark Souls looks like any other fantasy role-playing game. There are knights in armour, big monsters, fey women talking about prophecies… But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll uncover a fragmented, vague narrative that must be pieced together by the player. In this sense, the player is more of an archaeologist than a reader, tasked with piecing together clues to learn what your character’s role is in the game’s melancholic world.
As the name suggests, it’s a dark game, but it’s also remarkably intelligent. It explores some heavy themes: human frailty, nihilism, Nietzschean existentialism… and has been read as an allegory for overcoming depression and, conversely, for the futility of human endeavour. How does it manage this?
Well, partly through its vagueness. Dark Souls allows the player only peeks into its rich lore, and it’s up to the player to stitch these snippets together. As such, finding meaning among the clues becomes a subjective and highly personalized experience that each player will have their own opinions on, just as they had their own unique experience playing through the game…
And this leads me to Dark Souls’ greatest strength and to the lesson that writers can take away. Everything in Dark Soulscomes together to complement everything else—the gameplay encourages the same kind of thoughtfulness and patience that the storytelling requires (it’s known for its difficulty, and severely punishes rash or unconsidered moves); the fragmented nature of the plot reflects the central themes of existential anxiety, human compulsion, and confusion; the themes complement the decentralized player character, who, unlike so many protagonists in fictional media (and especially in video games), is not at the centre of the world, or even of the plot. And, to complete the circle, because that plot is not forced upon the player, the world feels real, living, as if it would continue to exist even if the player was not present (which in turn points back to the game’s central themes).
Dark Souls is a lesson in how to craft a world that feels like it’s not reliant upon the plot occurring within it. It is also a lesson in how the various aspects of a narrative can come together to complement one another and render a text utterly cohesive.
One book that achieves a similar feat is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel about (among other things) addiction, the empty dangers of entertainment, and the total noise of modern life. Wallace’s anti-entertainment message is reflected in how the book breaks up the flow of the narrative by constantly sending the reader to the back of the book to check endnotes and in how it structures its multiple plotlines in a way that rejects the standard three- or five-act structures of simpler narratives. Similarly, its preoccupation with the deafening noise of modern life is reflected in its ultra-long sentences, its interest in seemingly unremarkable ephemera, and its thousand-plus pages. It comes together, like Dark Souls, as a work of incredible purity.
. . . .