When searching for writing tips, video games are rarely used as case studies. Which is sad. And disappointing. Fantastic stories are told through games, so let’s acknowledge what they can teach us about writing.
Not all video games have a story, let a alone stakes and characters, but a lot of them do. Role-playing games like Dragon Age, 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:
Games know how to cut right to the chase (in some cases, literally). They set up the basics and the player learns the rest as the game goes on. They drip-feed information. The point of this, of course, is to immerse the player as quickly as possible.
Another benefit of this is that it creates a mystery, a common theme found in my Write A Great Opener series. Curiosity keeps a reader reading.
Only reveal what the reader needs to know to understand the situation – but not everything. Say two sisters are having a twenty-year-long feud. The reader doesn’t need to know what happened or even that they’re sisters. All the reader needs to know is two people are fighting.
In The World Ends With You our protagonist, Neku, wakes up on the street with a timer on his hand with no idea how he got there and why there’s a literal countdown engraved into his skin.
Now this depends on the kind of novel you’re writing. Not all novels can begin like Bioshock, with the protagonist crashing in a plane into an underwater world of crazies, but something chaotic should be happening soon. With games, this usually means fighting some baddies or solving a puzzle.
Granted, not all novels can (or should) lead with a fight. Jane Eyre didn’t throw down some demons before becoming a governess… I would read that, though. The point is, include more than internal conflict because the reader has no reason to care about a character’s emotions this early in the novel.
Games have no choice but to give their players something to do, whether it’s find something, or fight something, or go someplace. Not only that, but there has to be a good reason the protagonist has to do it and not some other character. 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.
Take Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series. He’s a treasure hunter, he’s brilliant at it and he loves it. That’s why he’s the one hunting the treasures. Make your protagonist special, but not too special.
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?