Relinquishing Control: Creating a Player-Driven Narrative

Posted on November 13, 2015 by Moira

I was recently lucky enough to have one of my books, Shadowborn, reach the top of the charts in both Fantasy and Young Adult on Amazon. Keaton asked me to reflect on some of the differences between writing for video games and novels, and I wanted to give a hearty thank you to the video game industry for helping me learn to approach stories differently! Read on :)

-M

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Every once in a while, one author will remind another that no matter how many drafts, edits, beta reading cycles, cover alterations, and formatting runs, a book is not finished until someone has picked it up and read it. That’s the nature of the medium. The book, in many senses, does not even exist until it’s gone out into the world to be interpreted and commented on, and no matter how infuriating an author might find it to have their work (by their standards) misinterpreted, the finishing of the book is something that can only be done by readers.

Video game writers might well say the same things to one another, but I also wonder whether or not they need to. One of the most astonishing things to me about the industry is how open it is to user feedback. While a writer might have 1-2 rounds of beta reading, and perhaps 3 in editing, it is not out of the question for a game to have significantly more rounds of testing.

And then the creators make changes. It’s incredible. It’s miles away from the assertions that the author is alone in their creation. It’s refreshing. And it has made a huge difference in how I approach my writing.

Before we go any farther, let me state that there is a huge variation in how authors take or do not take feedback, and in how much feedback they seek. Authors are not a monolithic group any more than video game companies are, and I have no doubt that there are outliers in both cases: authors who do 10-12 rounds of beta reading, video game companies that refuse to change the smallest thing, etc. The general ethos, however, seems different across industries: for authors, the sense of the inviolability of vision; for video game companies, the belief that games can and should be adapted to user feedback.

So where does this difference come from? One of the first major drivers, I think, lies not in the consumers, but in the teams themselves. If there’s a video game with a story component that hasn’t been made with a team, I have yet to find it. There is, necessarily, more than one voice. There are other writers. There are other people collaborating in your vision. It is inevitable that they will give feedback, and that the writers will be faced with an almost-daily choice of whether or not to incorporate it. Authors, on the other hand, largely work alone. The vision is theirs alone up until the first readers get their hands on the manuscript. The authors, for better or worse, have not been subjected to the consistent, somewhat unsettling experience of having their work critiqued, and they aren’t used to it.

A second difference: the player’s interaction with a game can in many ways be more visceral than a book. Books elicit emotion, that is undeniable, but any psychologist will tell you that there is a difference between watching a movie or reading a book, and taking an action yourself. Video games force you into ownership of media in a way that books do not—and the creators, almost all of them avid players, seem to understand this on a very basic level, therefore giving players more ownership of the story from the early stages of development.

Another difference, however, goes all the way back to before the great depression, when a rather astonishing concept began to rear its head in American media: that good books, great books, the quintessential Great American Novel, should be difficult to read. That good books…should not be enjoyed. The concept burrowed deep, and spread. You may think I’m insane as you read this, but consider the derision faced by blockbuster movies, romance novels, even books like the Hunger Games. Of course it’s popular. Of course everyone’s reading it. Most people don’t like the really good books.

In some senses, this drive to elitism can be remarkably viable. Art, quite often, is about confronting the broken, the ugly, the dishonorable. Many fantastic books drag us to places of despair, and humans are hard-wired to try to avoid pain. Transcendently amazing art can be difficult to consume.

But, and I say this as not only an author, but an avid reader of both literature and genre fiction, in writing above all, this concept of difficult art has been turned on its head. The perceived causality has begun to run backwards, stating not that good art can be difficult and even unpleasant, but instead giving authors a sort of pleasure when their book is disliked or misunderstood: of course. Of course you don’t get it. It’s high concept. It’s beyond most readers. I’ll never be appreciated in my own time. The idea of changing the plot, the characters, the wording so that readers can understand or enjoy is considered no less than a compromise of the author’s core self, a betrayal of Art.

It is for this reason that I find the video game industry refreshing. Here, more than in any other branch of media, I find the question: but if the consumers don’t enjoy it and don’t understand it, why are we making it? Video games do not shy from asking big questions on the nature of humanity, love, honor, and sacrifice, but neither does the industry as a whole revile games that make jokes, that tailor their story to extensive player feedback, that allow themselves to be fun.

It’s a valuable lesson.