When writing your short story or novel, it’s inspiring to see how writers in other mediums keep their audience engaged. Here are some specific storytelling techniques—with examples from gaming—that will give you a fresh angle on how to use these techniques in your writing.
World-building with purpose
Spira, the world where Final Fantasy X takes place, is one of the most detailed fictional worlds created. The game takes the form of a quest, so the developers needed a narrative solution for getting between the vast regions of Spira quickly. The creators of the game didn’t contract the world or jump from scene to scene but instead made the journey itself worthy of inclusion by introducing creatures, such as chocobos and shoopufs, to transport the questing party. These creatures don’t only appear in the game when needed. The player must visit a chocobo farm and learn all about them long before they ride one.
The travel happens purposefully, providing a break from the action where we can learn more about the characters. Whilst riding the giant shoopuf, for example, there’s a discussion about memories on the theme of shoopufs and how the characters’ stories intertwine.
Throughout the game, players are encouraged to explore and experience various customs, dangers, and environments. Likewise in your writing, you want to create a world that the reader wants to escape to, one that feels so real they could start a new life there.
Starting in the action
In God of War 3, the player begins the game by ascending Mount Olympus on the back of the titan, Gaia, whilst mighty Zeus delivers a rousing speech. Who wouldn’t want to discover how that pans out?
The camera then sweeps up the whole of Mount Olympus, giving a preview of the enemies the player will inevitably have to battle and providing glimpses of beautiful landscapes they might want to explore. Your short stories and novels should promise the reader—from the outset—a wonderful, immersive experience, and then deliver it.
Immersion through showing, not telling
Limbo is a masterclass in the art of ‘showing not telling’. It contains no dialogue, nor written words at any point in the game. The protagonist is a silhouette, giving the player only necessary information. He is a small, young boy, with thin limbs and no ability to attack. Within seconds the player understands the vulnerability of the protagonist. The player isn’t told they’re in a dangerous, fantasy forest where anything could happen, instead they walk through the trees and are attacked suddenly by a giant spider. They aren’t told there is a civilization of “Lord of the Flies” style children out to get them. They find, dodge, and disarm traps while boys, clad in leaves, throw rocks at them and run away into the woods.
The game uses the same technique of silhouetting to describe the setting, giving only necessary information. Even though only black shapes appear, the player knows they’re in a wood, as these shapes describe trees, logs, and vines. They know when they’re in a warehouse because they see crates, conveyor belts, and levers.
The few details all have a reason for being there. The game takes only around four hours to play. It’s the gaming equivalent of flash fiction and as such, there is a lot to learn.
Doki Doki Literature Club seems, at first, like a cliched anime visual novel. However, the writers give subtle clues from the outset. The tension slowly builds and eventually reveals the game as a dark, psychological horror. The horror aspects are foreshadowed with content warnings as the game loads. These are juxtaposed with the cutesy characterization and banal dialogue about reading and dating.
The first clue appears during a task where the player must select words to create a poem in order to impress one of the girls in the club. Amongst the list of jolly words such as ‘sunshine,’ ‘happy,’ and ‘playful’ are scattered words such as ‘massacre’ and ‘lust’. This juxtaposition creates foreboding and confusion, alerting the player something will happen.
The poems that the club members share are bleak, harrowing and surreal. Their use of language is well worth studying. The game is available to download and play for free on Steam, for PC.
Subvert the rules
While it should never be done for the sake of it, subversion can make your work stand out. Hideo Kojima employs it masterfully, using the videogame medium in uniquely creative ways and warping the expected into surprising and entertaining forms of play. He takes gaming tropes and expected structures, and flips them on their heads to create surprise twists and puzzles. The Metal Gear franchise is the gaming equivalent of Italo Calvino’s novel, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller.
Metal Gear Solid, for example, ignores the fourth wall that separates the player from the game. There is a boss the player must defeat who remembers the combat actions already taken against it and renders them ineffective. To defeat this enemy, the player themselves — not their in-game avatar — must get up off the couch and change the controller port on their games console.
Consider whether your narrative would benefit from a direct connection between you and your reader. After all, you both know your story is just words on a page.
The games mentioned in this article (and the franchises they are part of) are well worth your time as a writer. They can provide valuable inspiration once you analyze them. Each has much more to teach you than what is listed here, and you will have a lot of fun as you learn.