The Writing Game

This Thursday I’ll be posting the final section of The Storm. Every new story is different and provides its own unique challenges, but I have found that this one has especially so. Because, you see, I’ve actually had the idea for this story for a few years now, but I never intended to have it be read in this manner. I intended for it to be played as a video game.

On the surface, I get that The Storm might not seem like the sort of story you would expect to see in a video game. When one hears the term “video game” they tend to think of titles like Call of Duty, Mario, or Fifa, things that have nothing in common with a moody trip into the sea to rescue a lost fisherman.

And yet a video game can really be all sorts of things. At its heart a video game is simply a digital and interactive piece of entertainment. Under that broad umbrella there are all manner of narrative-rich opportunities, and there are some wonderful titles that are bravely exploring the possibilities there. Here as some of my favorite video games, I’ll bet they are ones you’ve never heard of.

Some Favorite Games)

That Dragon Cancer is an interactive set of vignettes that seeks to capture the experience of parents watching a young son slowly lose his fight with cancer. It isn’t a work of fiction, the game was developed by the actual husband-and-wife who went through this ordeal. As heart-breaking as a book or a video documentary of these moments would still be, I believe the interactive nature of their story makes it resonate all the more deeply with the player.

For example, one of the most tragically potent moment comes where you play as the father trying to calm his son during a sleepless night in the hospital. The child is beset by all manner of agonizing symptoms, and you are given a very classic video game trope: find the item that solves the problem. As you scramble around the small room and try one distraction after another the reality of the moment slowly sets in. You finally understand that the magical cure-all is not present. Like an avid gamer, all the parents wanted was to fix the problem and move on to the next chapter of life. But unlike a game, real life doesn’t always have such tidy resolutions.

Another excellent game is Dear Esther. In this one you simply walk about an abandoned island for a couple of hours, triggering some beautifully rich dialogue at various points. Those bits of dialogue seem to be snippets from four different stories, each with similar themes at their core. While the exact details of each never come to full light, the overarching tones of loss, regret, but never-ending commitment come through quite clearly. Now certainly evocative text in a novel can help to set the mood of the story, but in this game that mood is baked into every single moment without a single word. The player is able to directly see the somber seaside evening with its gray skies, billowing wind, shaded ruins, and cawing gulls. Even mechanical decisions like the measured pace of movement helps further to achieve a sense of presence that words alone could not have.

If those last two games sound too somber then how about To the Moon? Now to be fair, this game also has its moments of sadness, but only so that its triumphant finale can be given a proper catharsis. In this game you play as agents from a futuristic firm that is able to modify a patient’s memories, and thus let them live out their wildest dreams. Their current patient is an old man on death’s bed, whose last wish is to go to the moon. The problem is he doesn’t know why he wants that, just that he does. Knowing the root of that desire is essential to the agents’ work, and so they began to delve into his memories to find the secret locked inside. That revelation, and all that follows, is some of the most poignant and sweet storytelling I know of, all the more so because of the active engagement I had with it.

Original Idea for The Storm)

Alright then, but how about The Storm? How did I conceive of that one as a game? What do I feel is lost by having it written out as a short story? What do I feel is gained?

The entire experience was only intended to last about an hour or two. Players would be able to swap between two views, one looking at the entire boat from behind, and another at the helm from Oscar’s perspective. Controls would have been an absolute minimal, players would be able to use simple controls for steering their vessel, operating their radio, and controlling their gantry.

Immediately after being shown how to work each piece of equipment they would have received Sam’s signal directing them to go in search of a lost fisherman around a protrusion in the shoreline. The journey there would have been uneventful, except for that the water around the player would get increasingly choppy and the skies more gray. The audio would have been primarily taken up with the howl of the wind and  the occasional somber chord played on strings or piano.

The player would find the boat in question, be able to communicate with it, and follow promptings to begin towing it. The journey back to the docks would now become quite daunting. The player’s controls would intentionally feel slow and imprecise. They would be at risk of tipping over if they turned broadside to a wave, and they would start to see their boat sinking if they stayed out in the storm for too long. Any failure event like these would simply reload them at a recent checkpoint, to prevent the experience from becoming too grueling.

Harry would still speak to your character over the radio, and still give all the same revelations that are coming in the second half of the story. The player would never be told this, but as they do have access to all of the controls for the gantry, they could at any time release Harry and leave him to his fate. They could even at the start of the game refuse to go out looking for Harry and just move into their berth at the docks. Or perhaps they could venture halfway to the rescue, then turning about because it was too dangerous for them.

The game would allow for all of these options, and each one would change Sam and Harry’s dialogues to acknowledge the player’s decisions. In the end all the player has to do to trigger the game’s conclusion is land their boat on or around the docks.

Differences Between the Game and the Short Story)

The main difference between the game version and this short story version is that in the game Oscar would hardly ever speak. He would acknowledge when he had received a message, he would be able to call into his radio when searching for Harry, and he would suggest to the player the towing strategy for getting Harry back home. Everything else communicated would be driven by the other characters.

That isn’t to say that Oscar wouldn’t have a character, but rather that his character would be the player. This is the most powerful and unique narrative construct available to games. This is the reason why the player would have the power to save or abandon Harry. The game would have the same freedom of a choose-your-own-adventure story, but without the awkwardness of calling out specific moments of decision.

In this short story version the greatest change I had to make was coming up with Oscar’s character. Now he needed to have his own identity, and he needed to follow a single path. Whereas the game would have been structured to help the player learn something about themselves after hearing Harry’s revelation, the short story is for letting the player learn something about Oscar.

In the end I think there is real value to both approaches. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Oscar from writing him, but I also think there was a lot to like about the player getting to make their own decisions.

The other main difference is that rather than crafting a mood visually from the game screen, now I have to paint the scenery with my words.

In conclusion I think there is value to both approaches. Each comes with their own pros and cons. Certainly with the advent of film we have seen many stories that were originally written experiences translated into a more visual medium. I do believe that certain stories should be told in one specific medium or another, but that many of them might reveal new opportunities by being re-conceived on such a fundamental level.

In any case I hope this peek behind the curtain was interesting for you. I’ll be posting the second half of The Storm on Thursday. As you read through it, try to ask yourself how this experience might be changed if you were playing through it as a game.

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