I have four lifelong hobbies, and they all— with the exception of stumbling around in the woods and startling the wildlife as I look for new rocks or trees or muddy hills to scale—involve storytelling in some way. Reading, writing, and gaming (let’s leave the ‘rithmetic to other, more terrifying nerds) make up the bulk of both my avocational and vocational endeavors, and that’s not likely to change unless I am beheaded or finally get a firm “yes” on my marriage proposal to Marie-Claude Bourbonnais.
While reading and writing still command a fair measure of respect in our screen-centric society (and, hey, even I do a lot of both on screens big and small), gaming has a hard row to hoe in the minds of many non-gamers. One week, gaming is a health hazard; the next, it’s a teaching tool with unparalleled impact. I’m here to tell you, however, that while video games—along with their tabletop and handheld counterparts—have certainly contributed to my alluringly spherical figure, they have also helped me grow into the writer I am today.*
Gaming Feeds Your Brain Monkeys
I personally refer to that shadowy abyss from which I pull my ideas as “The Brain Monkeys.” They live in the basement of my brain, and as long as I keep them well-supplied with amusing and intriguing stuff, they will occasionally indulge my requests for stories and poems by sending them up the dumbwaiter. I toss in movies, books, games, and the occasional banana, and I get back brain squeezins I can share with others.
Feeding the monkeys is crucial to my creative process. As Stephen King says:
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
To this bit of wisdom, I would add “game a lot” and “watch a lot” (the latter to a lesser degree than the former, in keeping with King’s other dictum to “blow up your TV.”) Like a lot of fiction and poetry writers, I consider just about everything I do to be research rather than, as some would have it, “goofing off all damned day.”
Part of being a creative, I think, is building a base of knowledge that’s broad and deep, while simultaneously learning how to reticulate that base, making myriad connections that inform your own creative works and help you find an authentic and distinctive method of expression. And to create that base, and to build that net of connections, you need to absorb and analyze everything you can.
(Or you can just decide to become James Burke, but that seems like a lot of bother.)
Putting the “Fun” in “Fundamentals”
OK, first, I apologize for that header. Writers are an analytical bunch, and even while we’re kicking back with a binge of “Orange is the New Black,” huddled around the D&D/Pathfinder table, or rolling up yet another BioWare character to get our Mass Effect/Dragon Age fix, we’re not just participating—we’re observing. Absorbing. Adding note after note to the little mental database we all keep called “You know, I bet I could use this.” There’s a degree of separation from even the things we truly love, because the Secret Watcher (as Keith Maillard might say) demands we take note and squirrel things away for future reference. We’re always looking for ways to hone our craft.
Games (both tabletop and video) are especially useful in this regard, because their immersiveness is so immediately demonstrative. Make a decision, then experience the results. Learn how the traits you’ve given a character affect the way they overcome challenges, or make friends, or confront loss. Discover how you would deal with choices that impact not only yourself and your inner circle, but the world as a whole—and how others’ reactions to your choices set up your reactions.
Narrative structure; character building; plot development; they’re all here, thinly disguised as fun. You can even hone your ear for dialogue, if you’re so inclined.
Not since the heyday of Choose Your Own Adventure (another place where gaming and writing have significant overlap) have we enjoyed such a rewarding opportunity to hone our craft without even trying.
Living Others’ Stories to Better Tell Our Own
With regard to feeding the brain monkeys, I’m thinking more about story-centric games—RPGs like the Dragon Age series, or or the wonderful, underrated point-and-click adventures produced by Daedalic Entertainment—rather than more action-focused titles that put a premium on racking up points or kills. I’m currently neck-deep in Dragon Age: Inquisition (which just released its final DLC, Trespasser, on September 8th, so I’m going to focus my attention on this gem (we will ignore my occasionally slavish Bioware fangirldom).
Open-world RPGs like DA:I are a dream come true for writers who game (and gamers who write, when you come right down to it). Bioware has done an excellent job of providing us with the proverbial “sandbox,” setting up an overarching narrative with key benchmarks and triggers that move the narrative forward, but leaving both the route and, to some extent, the dramatis personae traveling it, to us. Let’s have a look at the trailer for Trespasser:
It’s hard not to get excited, watching this trailer, because I’ve been with the characters involved through hundreds of hours of gameplay. I’ve become invested in their stories; their triumphs and tribulations; their foibles and failings. It’s a little bittersweet, too, knowing this is the last DLC, designed not only to bring the intertangled storylines to a satisfying conclusion, but to allow us as gamers to influence the state of the world in the next game in the Dragon Age series (check out the Dragon Age Keep for more information on how actions and choices made in previous games affect the world of Dragon Age: Inquisition).
The How of a Story, as Well as the What
The truly exciting part, however, lies in the fact that countless other players, all of them just as keen as I am to continue their adventure, have stories, main characters, and decisions that are totally different from my own. They’ve followed the same narrative chain, but arrived with, say, a Chantry-hating male Qunari Inquisitor who’s big into smashing things with his maul and regrets letting Iron Bull sacrifice his Chargers for the sake of a questionable alliance—as opposed to my female Elfquisitor, who’s sassy and quick with an arrow and eager to fight for everyone’s rights, but still haunted by the potential for chaos in a world of free mages.
And all of us can play the story as different characters as often as we like, discovering new lore and outcomes (BioWare is positively a fiend for lore, which is manna from heaven for world-building fans), making (or losing!) friends and allies, and telling the story to ourselves as our characters live it.
Over and over again.
The fun, as well as the value for writers, lies in the variability of how. We get to feed our Brain Monkeys a varied diet, and live a story where our decisions have real impact both now and in the future. This, in turn, helps us as we’re crafting our own tales. Are we following tropes, or subverting them? Is Chekhov’s gun an actual gun, or a red herring that pops out a tiny flag reading “POW!”? Are we cooking up characters and storylines that people want to explore, to inhabit, to embody?
This sandbox we’ve been given is a tool that lets us discover our own preferred way of taking our players from the prologue to the epilogue. It’s a testing environment we can use to gauge how enjoyable, believable, addictive, or compelling our own material might be as we draw on our own influences to craft books and comics and plays and flash fiction.
Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
*NOTE: For what it’s worth, books were once thought to be bad for lady-brains as well. Apparently, 19th-century women were all just one Walter Scott novel away from turning into Emma Bovary.
The real kick in the ruffled skirt, though, is that books are STILL considered to be bad for us, silly emotional nitwits that we are. I know that the first time I read a Carl Hiaasen book, I immediately went out and slept with an irascible rogue before we navigated the complex sociopolitical circus created by Florida and its cartoonish denizens.
Pfft. Reading. What will we want next, equal pay? The right to control our own bodies?