Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 3, 2023

The Boss Fight, Sherpas, and the Devil’s in the Details

by James R. Preston

Photograph looking down a rocky alpine slope at a mountain climber on a rope.

”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. 

Why should you, as a writer, pay attention to gaming?

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. 

The stories good games rely on are insanely complex.

 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.

Classes of Games

Let’s look at the different kinds of modern computer games. One kind is valuable for writers. 

Regular games moved to the screen. 

 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.

Adventure or Role-playing 

 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.) 

Number One: the Boss Fight

Image of an open laptop on a table with an image on the laptop of a woman fighter with a bow strung across her back, kneeling on rocks in front of a rushing river, a curved blade across her lap held in one hand while she ties a cloth around that upper arm pulling the cloth tight with her teeth and the other hand.

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. 

Number Two: the Sherpa

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. 

Number Three: Details 

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. 

Ok, the boulder.

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. 

What’s Next, or a few Suggestions. 

 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. 

Red Dead Redemption 

 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. 

Grand Theft Auto V

 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?

  • Put the most important and hardest fight or decision last.
  • Find a sherpa to give you advice and help you along the way. 
  • Use games for details but exercise caution and verify everything. 

 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.

So that’s it.

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!

* * * * * *

About James

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.

Image credits

Top: Image by Simon from Pixabay 

Second: Image by NikSonFik from Pixabay 

26 comments on “The Boss Fight, Sherpas, and the Devil’s in the Details”

  1. James, I love this post, the idea of a Sherpa and all the rest. Every once in a while, the imposter syndrome bug gets me. I think that only "fake" writers need help. Thank you for reminding us (me) that writing can be and often is a team sport.

    1. Team sport is right, Lynette! At least in part. I have gotten so much out of other, more experienced, writers it's hard to describe. If nothing else just somebody looking at your work and taking it seriously!
      If you want to see a complex back story, look up the game Halo on Google.(Fair warning: if you start to play it will suck you in for a long time.)
      Thanks again!

  2. Hi James!
    I also have dabbled into the world of online games and discovered that its a good way to relax the brain. (Unless you get too far into the rabbit hole and crack out on a game for hours - also discovered in my dabbling!)

    Red Dead Redemption has so many characters and storylines,using it as a character study was helpful to my writing. It makes sense that it won awards.

    The games I gravitate to are more story-based, with little or no violence at all.

    Genisis Noir was stylistically very cool with puzzles to solve.

    Contrast has a cabaret ghost leading a girl to discovering her past and about her estranged family. Figure out shadow puppets and keep the story going.

    Today's gaming is very stimilating for creative thought. It's a tremendous development since last days of gaming in an arcade chasing Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde!

    Interesting post!

    1. Thanks, Kris! My Godson is a Red Dead Redemption expert and has shown me around some of the map, but Holy Cow that's complicated! I agree that games have a great deal to offer. The whole field is so rich it's hard to characterize. I've never played Contrast or Genesis Noir -- they sound good. I was amazed when I realized how huge the gaming industry is, and I think fiction writers need to pay attention to it. You are ahead of the curve. You might take a look at a game called The Stanley Parable. Office worker steps out of his cube and everybody has vanished . . . (Good luck.)
      Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Thanks for the statistics on revenue. Wow!

    I have three adult gamer children, and possibly some gamer daughters-in-law - they all seem to get great enjoyment from the games (while I wonder whether it's the best use of their time).

    My gamer days are way behind me - when they were kids we played things like Myst and Katamari Damasu - and then I lost the ability to respond quickly enough, as games got better in real time, and life happened.

    I may need to look again. If I ever get some energy back.

    1. LOL I know what you mean about energy, Alicia; good observation. Sometimes I think video gamers get a bad rap. If my Sherpas -- my godson and his brother -- were devoting their time to chess or bridge tournaments people would look at it differently. Any thoughts on your part?

      These games are modern entertainment at its most challenging. Take a look at steam.com and see if you can find a sample of a game called Portal. Now that's one that will make you think! (I can't master it.) And there's always Half-Life. Great story! I loved Myst but I never got to the end. I don't know Katamari Damasu.

      You are spot on about energy and reflexes, though.

      Thanks for commenting,

    1. I’m so glad you liked it, Ellen! Try steam.com and check out current games. They’re always running specials and free trials. I am very fond of Half-Life, but watch out for the bullsquids. Watch how Gordon Freeman’s character encounters different kinds of problems.

  4. I've gotta hop on YouTube and see those sword-fighting lessons! I love stuff like that. Like when Disney asked everyone who worked on Finding Nemo to go SCUBA diving. That's some cool research.

    I love that you mentioned the "What’s In It For Me" part of training. I've been a corporate trainer off and on for much of my adult life and that WIIFM is a huge part of what makes it work. It's vital to all marketing as well.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. Yeah, when I was writing training one of the hardest things I had to do was convince the other writers how important that was; and it was not easy to do!

      I didn't know about the Finding Nemo scuba diving. Wow, that's great!

      Thanks for contributing!

  5. I guess Stardew Valley doesn't count, eh? (grin) I do love the stories that are in games and believe these two genres of entertainment are more connected than many people realize. I hang with a group where gamers and writers work together, and it is so cool. You're right: story matters! Story is why people play the games and why they read our books. It's all about the "feels" - how these stories make us feel, I think.

    Great post!

    1. Lisa, yes, it's the "feels," and how cool that you have a group of gamers and writers. Yep, it's story. When a game is bad it's almost always because the story is lame. For complex back stories games are incredible. I've mentioned Halo, but Warframe has an even more complicated setup.

      I find it reassuring that story rules, regardless of the packaging.

      Thanks for posting!

  6. Hi, James. I am a gamer, when I have time! I've played Fallout, but none of the others you recommend. I have played Witcher and Witcher 2, as well as several Assassin's Creed. And of course, all the Tomb Raiders.

    I agree wholeheartedly that a good story is important in games. And some games (e.g. Witcher) have been developed from books. And some movies have come from games, too. It's a complex relationship, but all need good stories.

    1. Hi, V. M. I'm glad you liked Fallout. I did too, but doesn't Fallout: New Vegas have a complex map and story? Wow! I've never played the Witcher games, but I understand they are not easy. Assassin's Creed is one that my Godson has talked about; I'll have to see what he thinks of it.

      I think the back-and-forth between games & fiction & movies is fascinating.

      Thanks for weighing in! And check out Half-Life or Black Mesa when you can.

      PS I know what you mean about time! I'm driving in American Truck Simulator (an entire genre that I didn't have time to mention in the blog) and it can suck hours out of your day if given a chance.

  7. James, as a lifelong reader, longtime writer, and member of a very old age group, I have been aware of games but have not seen the point. Why not just hold a physical book and get lost in the story (fiction or narrative nonfiction) for entertainment that can't be matched? Why not just put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and produce from my own head and research?

    But now you have me convinced to at least give games a try. I'm also inspired by a young writer I know with a fine imagination, energy, and persistence who writes wonderful fiction and also is at home with games. So here I am, hauled feet first into this world---ropes, boulders, sherpas, and all. Wish me luck.

    1. LOL, Anna! Welcome to the gaming world. I remember -- years ago -- listening to Harlan Ellison talking about movies vs books, saying that the monster you see on the screen can never be as scary as the one you imagine, and I agree. Nevertheless, the stories offered by games like Deadspace 3 or Black Mesa are complex and interesting. And they can provide a break from reading/writing.

      Anyway, welcome, and I'm glad you have a sherpa in the form of your young friend. Remember, you are learning new skills, so be patient!

      Remember the gamer rule for when you're in a tight spot: don't thrash, think.
      Thanks for a great comment and good luck.

    1. Hi, Denise -

      Ask your boys to Sherpa you through the first chapter of Deadspace 3, or Black Mesa. They'll be impressed.

      All kidding aside, read some of the back stories to these games. There's more than running and shooting and drooly creatures chasing you. Of course, there are all of those things, too . . .

      Thanks for commenting!

  8. Great article!

    My husband is a long-time gamer. Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X have great stories and characters. Since we've been married I've been studying how the game makers weave the story threads, the rising stakes, and choices made to reveal the inner thoughts and true motivation of the main characters. The lessons they learn and the sacrifices leading to character growth in the arcs.

    1. Yes! Good comment, Tambra. Raising the stakes; that's an important part of gaming -- because it's an important part of storytelling.

      I haven't played any of the Final Fantasy games, but I know 1) They're not easy and 2) They have large, avid followings.

      Now, get your hubby to making some notes toward a story . . .

      Thanks for commenting and now, as always -- back to work! Type faster!

      Thanks, Tambra.

  9. James, I have never been a gamer but after reading your post, I might give it a try. It sounds like fun with a purpose. Of course that means going down a rabbit hole for me to decide what to buy and what gaming equipment I might need. Thanks!

    1. Hi, Merissa -
      Equipment: none. Game: that depends. there are free samples, and totally free games.

      No kidding! Gamers use PCs, entering movement through the keyboard. It's completely smooth and fast. (We're talking Windows here.) So you don't need to buy a console like an Xbox. If you really get into it you can purchase a controller that attaches to your PC. I use a controller when I fly in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

      Games? You want games? Warframe is free. Yep, you just load it onto your desktop and create and account. They may try to sell you add-ons, but the games at no charge and it's a good one, with a good, complex story.

      Go to steam.com and look at the variety of games that are available. You'll be amazed.
      Thanks for posting and good luck! Let me know if you try one of these.

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