The Writing Game

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Photo by Jens Mahnke on

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.

Would I Lie to You?

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Photo by Nikolay Ivanov on

On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.

A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.

Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.

And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.


Fight Club)

Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.

But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.

In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.

The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.


The Beginner’s Guide)

Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.

The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.

Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.

So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.

This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.

From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.

The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.


Truth Through Deception)

So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.

If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.

And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?

This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.

Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.

Come back Thursday to see how that works out. I’ll be waiting for you there!