Writing with game mechanics

I work as a writer in the computer games industry (actually I’m a combination of writer, designer and programmer, but it’s writing that’s relevant here), and I write prose fiction in my spare time. I’ve been thinking lately about the intersection of games writing and more traditional non-interactive storytelling, and I’ve realised that there are some skills (or at least habits) that I’ve picked up from games writing that I’ve been able to transfer to other media.

Game mechanics, briefly, are the set of rules that a game uses to determine what happens, and the set of things it lets the player do to interact with the game. Almost all games try to depict the real world with a greater or lesser degree of realism, even if that realism is just a thematic dressing for abstract game mechanics (e.g. Nintendo doesn’t make games about an abstract shape that moves up the screen then down again when you press a button: they make games about a plumber called Mario who jumps).

On the other hand, even the most detailed and realistic games don’t simulate the world perfectly. (Even if we had the technical capability to realistically simulate every detail of the universe, doing so wouldn’t necessarily make for a good game.) So a game has to take its scenario and decide which parts of the scenario it wants to depict in detail, and which parts it wants to abstract away.

In choosing which parts of the world to make into detailed game mechanics, and which parts to ignore, the game is making a statement about what kind of game it is. A first-person shooter will likely have detailed mechanics about shooting at enemies, reloading, modelling the different effects of different weapons, and so forth. (Note that I said detailed, not realistic–realism isn’t necessarily an aim, nor should it be.) The player character’s need to eat, sleep and urinate are likely to be ignored, as are your enemies’ and squad members’ interpersonal relationships. In the Sims games, on the other hand, the characters’ bodily functions and feelings towards one another are modeled in some detail, but fighting is barely present. Both games are set in the real world but they model different aspects of it.

What does this have to do with novels?

I’ve found that a good way to keep my story focused is to ask myself, What are the game mechanics of this story? What are the sorts of obstacles that get placed in front of the protagonist, and what set of skills does he or she have to overcome these obstacles? This is similar to the question, What is the story about?, but that question normally has a larger-scale answer: it’s about space pirates, or telepaths, or underground-dwelling goblins. Thinking in terms of game mechanics means thinking on a smaller, more detailed scale: what are the specific moment-to-moment interactions the characters tend to have with their world.

For example, in my current novel, the main character is good at reading people’s emotions and manipulating them by saying the right thing. Once I’d decided that, the question of how he could get out of the situations the plot put him in became much clearer: he would start by thinking of how he could talk his way out, and only in unusual circumstances would he find some other way. It also suggested the kinds of situations he could find himself in: not ones engineered for him to get out of easily, but ones he could use his skills on (whether to succeed or fail) in an interesting way. If I hadn’t thought about game mechanics in this way, I think I would have ended up with an unfocused plot and a central character without a specific interesting skill.

Questions to ask yourself about any story:

  • If this were a game, what abilities would the player have to interact with the game-world?
  • If this were a game, what sort of obstacles would the game put in the player’s path?

Going too far with this thinking could easily lead to single-minded or contrived stories, but I believe that thinking sensibly about game mechanics can help give a story a memorable focus.

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