Video games are great for teaching us essential writing techniques and nowhere is that more clear than in how a game sets up its story.
Of course, not all video games have rich lore and complex character relationships like Dragon Age or Final Fantasy. I’m not about to make a case for why Pac-Man is actually literary genius, as fun as that would be. But the importance of a good setup is built into video games, by virtual of just games being games.
Essentially, video games are quests. It’s all about action.
Find the thing. Do the thing. Save the thing.
You get the idea. A simple but effective mechanic designed to keep gamers butts on their seat.
That’s why role-playing games like Mass Effect, The Last of Us, and The World Ends With You are excellent at quickly establishing a goal and why it matters which is vital to the set-up of a story. This is what novels need to do.
Next time you approach your opening chapters, think of your protagonist as a player and consider implementing the following techniques:
Use minimal set-up to give a sense of mystery
Games know how to cut right to the chase (in some cases, literally).
The point of this, of course, is to immerse the player as quickly as possible. And, most importantly, to not be boring. Games just give the basics, and the player learns the rest on the journey.
Another benefit of this is that it creates a mystery.
You’ll come across this a lot in my Write A Great Opener series, but in my opinion mystery is a lot more important than action in a novel’s first chapter.
Curiosity keeps a gamer gaming, in the same way it keeps a reader reading.
Only reveal what we need to know to understand the situation.
- Our past-less protagonist swims from the burning wreckage of an aeroplane and discovers an underwater city. (Bioshock)
- Neku wakes up in a busy street with a timer on the palm of his hand. (The World Ends With You)
Throw them into immediate chaos.
Most games, at least the ones I like to play, involve fighting some baddies.
Naturally, not all novels can or even should start this way, but something chaotic should be happening soon. This doesn’t have to be the inciting incident but it should be the first action that leads to the inciting incident.
- Lee gets into a car crash when a zombie walks across the highway. (The Walking Dead: Season One)
- The malevolent Mr. Voice arrives to lure Misfortune with the promise of eternal happiness. (Little Misfortune)
- Professor Layton is introduced to a new mystery or is reminded of a puzzle. (Literally every Professor Layton game)
Don’t just have internal conflict because we have no reason to care about a character’s emotions this early in the story. A balance of both is key.
Give them something important to pursue (& a reason why).
As I’ve already mentioned, games have no choice but to give their players something to do, whether it’s find something, or fight something, or go someplace.
Whatever this something is, it is fundamental to the rest of the game.
While throwing chaos and mystery at our protagonist is all well and good, if our protagonist just stands there gawking and not doing anything, it’ll get old pretty fast. Give them something to do, a person to find, a conversation to have, or an objective to be met.
- Subject Delta wants to rescue his surrogate daughter. (Bioshock 2)
- Joel, Tommy and Sarah need to escape the city. (The Last Of Us)
- Phil wants to escape his school. (Riddle School)
Not top of that, there has to be a good reason the protagonist has to do it and not some other character. The character needs a reason to be involved with the conflict.
In a video game, the player’s character usually has a power, weapon, or talent that sets them apart from the others.
A note of caution: This can back-fire. A character that’s too wonderful tends to fall into a Mary Sue or Gary Stu trap. The best advice here is don’t overthink it.
- Sora was chosen by the keyblade. (Kingdom hearts)
- The Inquisitor is the only one with the power to close the Breach. They’re the Herald-thingie. (Dragon Age: Inquisition)
- Nathan Drake has a natural talent for treasure hunting. (Uncharted)
- Davey is the only one with access to Coda’s secret stash of games. (The Beginner’s Guide)
- It’s Connor’s mission to hunt deviant androids. (Detroit: Become Human)
Above all else remember: If your story was a game, would you want to play it?
And there we have it. Three things to consider when writing those opening chapters. Have you anything to add? Is there more video games can teach us?