Why This Novelist Likes Video Games

I’m not supposed to admit this.

Many in the snobby writing community pooh-pooh it as frivolous and don’t consider it real storytelling, and I might be shunned for this in the future… Sigh… I’ve got to take a deep breath and say it… I think some of the best new stories I have experienced in the last few years have been in video games.

See, for me as a lover of stories, it was never about the medium someone is writing in (plays, books, movies, radio, etc.), but the story being told.  So I really have a problem comparing the mediums like some do. I don’t, per se, think novels are better than movies all of the time. There are adaptations of books for the silver screen that I think are better than the book (Obviously, The Shawshank Redemption is an easy example).

Of course, I must admit, there is nothing as bad as a bad movie. They can reach levels nothing else can.

Anyway, I don’t want you to think of this as a blanket pat on the back of video game stories. So let me paint my perspective better by introducing you to the 12-year old version of me.

This is Scott at 12 and there is nothing he likes more than reading a good book.  I read so much that my mother would, now and then, kick me out of the house to go play with friends because all I wanted to do was lay on the couch and read… Of course, it must be noted that typically I would sneak the book out under my shirt and head to our local park and finish there.

When I am reading a good story, I can forget to eat and sleep.

When I am reading a good story, I lose time.

When I am reading a good story, I can forget my name.

What I loved about stories was (and still is) a good hero’s journey. I, of course, had no idea who Joseph Campbell was yet, but that concept (or awareness) by him was exactly what I was latching on to. There was the hero (or heroine) starting out new, fresh, learning about how they are special and then going on a great adventure. I think I read Tolkien each summer up until I was 18 because of this.  And since i was on the cusp of my own life and becoming an adult I could relate to the hero’s journey in a major way, wondering what I was going to become or do.

That pure escapism in a story escaped me as I entered my teens (I began analyzing things too much is my guess), but returned, strangely, when I was 25…. and that was thanks to a video game.

Ok, so there I was at 25 and I had just gotten out of a relationship with a semi-crazy person (I won’t mention names but she was emotionally distant with identity and father issues, and she would use religion to compensate for those problems… Did I mention I grew in West Michigan? ). I was also preparing a major life change with a move to Los Angeles. I was about to start a new life, but at the time I was living at home, saving money and counting down the days until I packed my car and went. I needed an escape to pass the time and someone recommended Final Fantasy VIII.

I had heard of the Final Fantasy games and made jokes like many did of how many finals can a series really have. Final Fantasy VII was major news in the gaming community a few years back for it use of story in the game, but I had never played it. So I was not prepared at all for the journey in Final Fantasy VIII.

That game opened up to me the possibility of how powerful this new medium can be for storytelling. In the game you follow the growth of Squall, a young mercenary as he finds his destiny as a hero and the story reeked of Joseph Campbell twists and steps.  I was completely immersed in the world that they created and the characters began to feel like friends. I was immediately reminded of reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time and wondering if I closed my eyes just right and wished if I could become Pippin (I was 8 at the time so don’t judge me too much).  It all felt that real to me.

A good video game story can capture an attention more than any other medium, because, honestly, the characters you care about need you as much as you need them.

Their story won’t end without you. I can walk away from a movie or book, but in a video game the characters wait… and will wait until your return. It may sound spooky, but it is true and there something magicial about that.

Now granted, Final Fantasy has had some hits and misses since then. I found Final Fantasy IX lame, X was amazing (They freaking killed the hero!), but XII and XIII had great worlds but the stories needed a little more work. Don’t get me started on Final Fantasy X-2 either, that was just painfully bad after the brillance of X (It is like comparing The Empire Strikes Back to The Phantom Menance).

But the fact is the potential is there, the potential is there in all video games. I just finished Batman: Arkham City and it was easily one of the best I have ever played. I’m not that big a comic fan, but the story and characters… well, it was genius, and like a good book I was sad when I finished the game yesterday.

All writers need to take video games seriously and consider what potential the medium has for storytelling. Personally, I find the world of this medium to be filled with possibility. The grass is green, the sky is blue, there are few others around; its a bright new world filled with chances and adventures to experience.

And if anyone from Square Ennix is reading this, I would drop everything to write the script for one of your games. Just give me a time and place.

Could the place be on the planet Spira?

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading my article, why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had three novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or Doors and Megan as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!

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12 responses

  1. I’m right there with you, I love video games. I’ll admit a lot of the stories are not as strong as you would read in a lot of books, but being able to interact with the world helps to engross you in it so much more.

    The journey I had playing Final Fantasy VII when I was younger still brings a smile to my face today. I don’t remember a whole lot of the story but the experience was amazing!!

  2. I’ve been trying to explain this very thing to people for years! I’ve always been drawn to the story-driven RPG’s for the reasons you mentioned above. It’s all about the story and the beauty of video games is your ability to immerse yourself within the story. Just like a good book. I’d like this post more than once if I could!

  3. Thanks for the support taureanw and jasondegray and I am glad you like the essay!

    I must admit I always regretted I never got to play FFVII when it was new. It sounds like your experience was much like mine with VIII.

    As I reply to both of your comments, I am listening to the soundtrack of VIII on my ipod if you can believe it!

  4. I never used to play video games for the storyline, but now that I think about it, the storyline is crucial to someone’s involvement in the game. It’s got to be more than just fun gameplay and good graphics.

  5. Thanks for the comment Maggie, and you know when a game doesn’t have a good storyline, you don’t “feel” it as much. For example, I find the Lego games fun, but they don’t “mean” much to me. Oh, they can make me laugh sometimes and I like the puzzles, but with a storyline like the games I listed they register more. You want to finish it to see how it ends, not just to say it is over.

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  8. A lot of folks, for whatever reason, don’t like FFVIII – I am not one of them. (>^-‘)> It was also the first new-generation Final Fantasy game I played (I skipped FFVII for the superficial reason that it looked hideous), and I was as impressed as you were. I remember being blown away by that opening sequence (which still holds a place for me as one of the best all-time video game openers). The characters were fun (holy crap, swearing in video games?), the story was huge (I can’t think of a game where the stakes are higher), and the soundtrack is probably the best in the series (its main competition for me being FFVI‘s).

    I eventually did go back and give #7 a chance because of my experience with #8, and while it was good, I can’t prefer it over #8 (or #6, for that matter). FFX definitely has one of the best stories (hurray for the addition of voice-acting), and it’s also probably just the most fun. I hands-down prefer its battle system to any other in the series, as well as its use of summons/eidolons/what-have-yous, and the level-up mechanics were fantastic. Its sequel…yeah, they kind of went in every wrong direction they could. It felt like a fan-fiction written by someone a little too fond of Charlie’s Angels.

    FFXII – I agree, the world was cool, but the story left something to be desired. And its mechanics were tediously obnoxious. It was not a game you played so much as one you programmed to play itself. And what was with the advancement system? They took the perfection of #10’s and superconvoluted it by adding weapons and armor to it and making you have to buy the ability to use anything you already leveled up to in addition to using experience to unlock it and buying the equipment itself. Gah.

    FFXIII was a mixed bag. I really liked Lightning (only the second female lead in the series!) and Sahz, but was lukewarm to the other characters. The world was fairly interesting, and while it had a couple high points, the story wasn’t that engrossing overall. The combat system was pretty fun and snappy once you got the hang of it, but that last battle frustrated me to the point I nearly quit. I just picked up FFXIII-2 last week, however, and from what I’ve seen so far I think it may crazily enough be the superior game.

    Hmm…I guess I’m pretty opinionated about the series. Who knew? (>^-‘)> Just don’t get me started on Phantasy Star

    • Awesome comments AND you brought up Phantasy Star!!! I think I saw all of the original endings from the old Sega version.

      I completely agree with your review of the games. I’ll get the new XIII for closure. I wonder what is going in with Versus since the creator has been so busy and hasn’t worked on new Kingdom Hearts. Yeah, I love those games too.

      Thanks for writing.

      • I loved the Phantasy Star series. The first one was the roadmap for what the entire Japanese RPG scene became, and Phantasy Star II has to be one of the greatest games of all time (who coud be prepared for such a stark, tragic story in a video game in the ’80s?). In fact, it was my favorite game ever for over fifteen years until Okami came out and usurped its place.

        I also wonder what the heck is going on with Versus. And, yes, a new mainline Kingdom Hearts game would be swell. (>^-‘)>

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