by James R. Preston
”Left, James, swing left!”
I pushed off and swung left just as a boulder the size of a refrigerator hurtled down the cliff toward me.
One of the principles of adult training is called the WIIFM, which is an acronym for What’s In It For Me. It’s fair for you, reading this essay, to ask that question, and I think I should answer it before I tell you what happened with the boulder.
Well, first, it’s a big part of the entertainment world. How big? Last year the revenue generated by video games was more than that of books, movies, and music combined. That’s right — combined. Grand Theft Auto V has raked in more than three times what Avatar has earned. Three times.
Anything that important that relies on story for its success is worth some study on your part, and the big games have that in common — a good story.
Here’s a brief synopsis of Half-Life, one of the simpler adventure games. Your name is Gordon Freeman and you’re a physicist working in a secret lab buried deep underground In the desert somewhere.
One morning you are assigned to test a sample; everything goes wrong and there’s a dimensional tear that allows creatures from somewhere else to enter our world. Many of your colleagues are killed or injured.
One of the survivors begs you to get to the surface and get help. So far, an ok story, not particularly unique. Just wait . . . Getting to the surface is difficult but it’s only the beginning of your problems. The story has humor and interesting characters. For example, one of the scientists in the Men’s’ Room asks you to throw him some toilet paper because his stall is out. Hint if you play the game: it’s good to help him.
From there on it gets complicated.
Let’s look at the different kinds of modern computer games. One kind is valuable for writers.
Chess and checkers can be played online against a human opponent or against the computer. While they can be fun, they’re not what we’re going to talk about because they have no story.
Do you want to drive an 18-wheeler or fly a jet? Try American Truck Simulator or Microsoft Flight Simulator. Again, interesting, and I am a fan of American Truck Simulator, but they’re not the subject of this essay either.
Ok, these are the games we’re interested in. Examples include Half-Life, Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto V. All the best games in this genre are popular because they have a good story. This kind of game is what the scientists on The Big Bang Theory play. Typically, you’re dropped into a world and given a quest, a problem to solve.
These games are First-Person Shooters (FPS), Third-Person, or a combination of the two.
The game creators constantly must answer the dreaded, “What happens now?” It’s possible to learn from their examples. Three things I’ve learned are listed below. (I know, I know, that boulder is still rushing toward me. We’ll get back to it.)
In gamer talk that’s the battle with the last, most powerful enemy. It always comes last. Studying how problems are arranged in games can help you when you are deciding what comes next. In all good games — and in your stories — the biggest problem is solved last.
In the movie version of Goldfinger James Bond fights Oddjob, but that can’t be the end of the story because he must deal with Goldfinger himself. That’s the Boss Fight and it comes last.
When you think about conflict, whether it’s battling a martial arts expert or the heroine deciding to trust the mysterious stranger, the big fight has to come last, and ideally each fight or decision leading up to it is harder than the one before.
Meanwhile, back at the cliff face, I’m still hauling myself up while my Sherpa Logan, who has made it to the top and didn’t even have the decency to make it look hard but I’m not holding it against him, at least not much, coaches me. Writing is not easy. Most of us can benefit from advice. In gaming talk that’s somebody who knows the ropes (LOL, reference back to the cliff) and who is willing to help newbies.
By reading this blog you’re already on the right track. If you decide to follow my suggestion and spend some time gaming, look for someone who has experience, who is a bit farther down the writing road than you are. One of my sherpas was an LAPD officer and talented writer named Paul Bishop, author of Citadel Run among other police stories. His comments as we went over the opening to my second thriller are still things I keep in mind. Side Note: he wanted to illustrate a point about firearms, reached down into his boot top and pulled out a small revolver. Yes, it’s true: I’ve had a reviewer pull a gun on me.
The folks who create games — if they are good — put a great deal of time into accuracy. The people who created Mount and Blade studied and practiced sword fights so they would get the moves down right. You can find videos of their training on You Tube. If you are writing anything with that kind of combat, you would do well to take a look. As with studying simulations, always double-check your facts.
I pushed off from the cliff face, it missed me and with Logan’s help I made it to the top. That’s an example of a common misconception about gamers. Most modern games are team efforts, with groups from four players on up trying to work together to solve the problem or win the battle.
I was playing a sword-and-sorcery game with Logan and his brother Chase. We were jumped by a gang of ogres and, while I won my fight, I was separated from my teammates and hopelessly lost. I heard Chase say, “I’ll go back and get James. I know where he is.” It’s a cooperative effort.
If I have persuaded you to take on an adventure game, I have some suggestions, specific games that have something to offer.
A classic. One that a newbie (that’s you) can master given time. It’s linear; you solve one problem and move on to the next. There’s no going back. There are sequels that carry the story forward.
Welcome to the old west. Think Fistful of Dollars. It’s new, detailed and very interesting. This is an example of an open world game in which you can go wherever you want. One lady, writer for the LA Times, logs on goes fishing. She finds it very peaceful.
The fifth iteration of this epic is a huge seller. While it has a great backstory, I’m hesitant to recommend it because the language is really really raw. You have been warned.
A post-apocalypse world filled with, well, just about everything. In this one you get to select the traits of your character, which is not a bad way to think about your own creations. How persuasive are they? Are they strong?
If you have an interest in checking out this form of entertainment, a good place to start is www.steam.com
Steam sells games, but they also have reviews, samples, and frequent sales so you can try out a game at a reasonable price. And if you study the reviews, you’ll see that games with good stories get good reviews. As we say so often here on WITS, story matters.
These are the gems I got out of games that helped my writing, and that I believe can help yours, too. At the very least it’s a break, a different way to study that which we are all devoted to -- the story. Good luck and may your health points always regenerate fast.
Now it’s your turn. Have you played any of these games? Was it worthwhile? Please share any games you love that I missed down in the comments!
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James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley.
Find out more about James at his website.
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