Finding advice about writing is easy. Those who are looking will find plenty of sites, twitter accounts, books, classes, magazines, conferences and forums designed to provide them with the inspiration and guidance they so sorely need (since, apparently, writing is such hard, lonesome work — not to be enjoyed). Some of this advice is good, timeless, helpful. But most of it is pedantic and prescriptive to the point of absurdity: write with a certain pencil; write at a certain time of day, and so on. Many people seem happy to think of writing as something that, if simply practiced enough, can be perfected — or even worse, they think of writing as a job. But here’s one piece of advice I haven’t come across in my perusal of readily available resources: play video games.
Even if you don’t play them, you probably know that since their initial rise in the 70s, videogame consoles have made great progress with visual presentation and technical capabilities. You might also know that video games are now a 25 billion dollar industry. But something I didn’t know until I recently bought a console and started playing was that games are deeply invested in telling stories—interesting, complex, character-driven, deeply affecting stories. And, apparently, that’s what most people are signing up for. A 2011 study done by the ESA (Entertainment Software Association), found that “an interesting storyline” was one of the main factors driving game purchases. None of this will be new to anyone who’s played a video game recently, but outside of the gaming community, among so-called “literary” folk, there doesn’t seem to be much overt discussion of video games as texts or really of video games at all. And that’s a shame, because this medium, which exists somewhere between cinema and the novel, can offer some solid writing advice.
If a writer’s goal is to create a work so immediate and stunning that readers can’t help but become wholly absorbed by it, video games serve as a good model. Nothing can make the hours vanish like a good novel or a good video game. And while there is no question that video games, a relatively new medium, borrow much from methods of storytelling and characterization that have long since been honed by writers, in many respects they also stand firmly on territory all their own.
Many of the same people sharing advice on writing will, in the same breath, tell you that good writers break rules, and that they create styles and worlds so complete and unique that they begin to necessitate their own, slightly different rules. Video games, perhaps more transparently than novels, create environments and experiences so clear and focused that they inherently dictate their own rulebooks. Novels must employ careful use of language and form, and these strategies can be difficult to recognize explicitly, but video games put their careful selection on full display. From the way tree branches split sunlight into sharp, separate rays to the wood grain and indentations on the table in the kitchen you’re exploring, we can appreciate how minor details work to make the world complete — to make it feel vibrant and lived in. Arkham City, with it’s sprawling skyline, detailed down to every fire escape and subway tunnel, or The Last of Us, where the open lockers and strewn papers of an abandoned high school are all perfectly rendered, can help writers see just what a fully imagined world looks like and how details play a role in helping that experience arise. After seeing how this works in games, maybe writers can gain a new perspective on stale conventions and move the energy and attention to environment and world-building seen in games onto the page.
Another well-known piece of advice claims that good writing doesn’t feel written — that the writing and artificial styling should, in other words, get out of the way so that the life on the page can seem less obviously artistically mediated and more direct. This is where video games shine.
When done right, interacting with the world of a video game is seamless. You’re not pressing buttons on a controller that correspond to actions on the screen, you’re simply acting. Once you learn the control scheme, you don’t have to stop and think “in order to open this door I need to press the square button,” because it has become automatic, so normal and natural that it need not be thought about. The same is true for good prose. When Junot Diaz describes ocean water rising into the air after hitting rocks as “shredded silver,” you don’t have to stop and think about why this description is perfect (unless you want to) — it’s powerful because, even if we hadn’t thought to describe it that way before, we suddenly feel that no other combination of words could be so exact or direct. Is it because the rhythm of the syllables mimics the on and off movement of waves? Because the consonance of the S sounds are evocative of the sound of waves crashing against rock? It doesn’t matter. The language has life and it doesn’t seem artificial or get in the way. Good video games, through control schemes and fluid movement, don’t seem obviously artificial, either. Movements and action feel like they couldn’t take place any other way, just as the best prose (although no-doubt carefully constructed) flows so smoothly, is so clearly and precisely descriptive, that a reader can only sit back and marvel at its potency. Design and artistry recede, making room for experience. Taking part in the intuitive but constructed world of a video game might help writers develop a better sense of how they want their prose to feel.
Susan Sontag famously wrote about the need to break away from the traditional impulse to interpret works of art as if they were containers out of which meaning could be plucked. Artists, she says, can “elude the interpreters…by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is.” Sontag saw potential for this primarily in cinema. Maybe if she’d been writing after the popular explosion of video games, many of which resemble long, interactive films, she’d have seen potential there, too. Because they combine elements of storytelling and cinema into a new mode of address that is so direct as to be interactive, video games may be the best medium for evading interpretation in favor of experience.
As a medium, video games are still in their infancy, which makes them all the more promising and worth consideration. I know writers are all supposed to be productive, serious people, that they’re supposed to read vigorously and seek to experience as much of the world as possible, or whatever… But, the next time you’re feeling in need of creative inspiration — of experiencing a work so powerful and beautiful you can’t do anything but sit back and wonder “how did they do that?” — you might want to reach for a controller instead of a book.
Illustration by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.