I’ve mentioned before my love of video games. I have also mentioned, of course, my particular conflict-of-interest when I talk about video games: I have, in the past, made money writing for them. Beyond those, however, I’ve written about the fact that, from time to time, some games have risen above the medium itself, have shown themselves to have things to say that are both legitimate and powerful (read here and here).
That Dragon Cancer. This War of Mine. The Last of Us. Life is Strange.
Play ‘em, they are gaming at its best. They are, honestly, more than games.
The first will reduce you to an incoherent, sobbing mess, then rebuild you with the realization that we are all better for the hero’s having lived. The second will give you insight into the reality of war that no shooter or adventure game ever will…insights from those who actually lived it. The other two? Reality, and growing up. Themes very important to the majority of those who play video games.
Every teacher and writer out there — including me! — will tell you that one of the keys to becoming a better writer is to read. Well…you can learn from other mediums, too. The games I list above, as well as a handful of others, can teach you a ton about writing — about characters, and agency, and even plot — even as you enjoy the hell out of the experience.
Then you have the rest of that particular universe…and, yes, it goes downhill pretty quickly.
Look, I’m proud of the projects on which I worked. But nothing in which I was involved rises above the level of game, let alone reaches the level of art that are those I list above.
But, you can learn from the shitty, just as effectively as you can from the awe-inspiring. Learning what not to do — what to avoid — has a great deal of value in and of itself…trust me on that one!
I use MST3K and RiffTrax to learn those lessons from movies (and laugh my ass off), but I have yet to find a group of intelligent, educated comedians who will similarly pick apart games…
That means I gotta do it myself.
Dammit — and I thought my days of homework were done after my second round of college!
Now, what got me thinking about this? Sadly, I took the time to study the plots and stories of a particular not-to-be-named game series…a series, I should add, that I have played.
Keep in mind, I am usually one of those who will tell you to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The folks who wrote this series, on the other hand, decided not let the good be the enemy of the random, insane and completely unintelligible. Their attempts at clever plot twists, and ever-increasing stakes, made for an overall story that — drunk or sober (and I’ve tried both ways, believe me!) — makes absolutely zero sense.
I wish I could say that particular sin was a rarity, but it ain’t. Not in games, not in comics/manga, and not even in books.
So, the point of all of the above? Well, it’s kinda the same point behind all of the background work I do when I’m prepping for a story: have a damned plan!
To quote The Hunt For Red October, “…Russians don’t take a dump without a plan, son!”
Channel your inner Russian. Have a plan.
No, really — spend a few days and come up with a stinkin’ plan.* And I don’t mean one just for the story currently under your pen (or your keyboard, as the case may be). Nope…try to give yourself some leeway by thinking about life, and events, both before and after your story. Give yourself a couple of avenues to explore if and when you decide to write a sequel…or even just another story in the same “universe”.
The lack of such a plan is what led to the crazy, semi-random insanity of that game series. Honestly, the lack of a plan is what led to stuff like the senseless insanity of the Star Wars “Expanded Universe” — you know, the stuff (comics and books and games) that Disney mercifully took out back and Old Yellered into the grave of “non-canon”.
*I did not, by the way, have such a plan for anything after Wrath & Tears. When I decided there were two more stories for Connor…well, I had to do me some fast damned tap-dancing to get things set up correctly.