Most days I try to write young adult fiction, I use the word ‘try’ as I am just winging it like the rest of us. So, the other day and only two thousand words into a first draft of a story I found myself stuck. Nothing unusual about that really, so I did my usual act of swivelling around on my office chair and wondering how my story might work and then how other stories work. I considered watching a film (any excuse to ‘not write’ in the name of research) I thumbed through a couple of books and then realised I had overlooked one area rich in story, narrative and content; video games.
I grew up with Space Invaders and Pac Man and the Atari games console in the 1980s OK not much narrative and story there, you shoot things and/or chase things, sometimes running away from them for some variety. That is also true of many contemporary first person shooting games out there but there are many games rich in story and narrative drive. I should know, I am slightly addicted to one at the moment. After a break from gaming of almost twenty years I have discovered the The Elder Scrolls – Skyrim, I’ll grant you it does involve a fair bit of bashing skeletons and other nastiness with a sword but… it is a completely open world, free for the player to explore as and how they like. It is totally immersive and utterly compelling and unlike some of my favourite books the story need ever end, it is also a beautifully rendered landscape of Nordic snow capped mountains, pretty valleys and dank caves full of…
The flip side to this is yet another diversion from time I could be writing, but there is much to learn from the world building and narrative skills of the game designers. The Elder Scrolls features a main story line and scores of other quests and adventures to pursue, decisions to make, worlds to save, companions to meet. Simon Parkin wrote an article for the Guardian on this recently where he quotes Martin Amis who wrote in 1982 that “the video game tells a story. The better you get, the longer the story lasts. And we all know how children feel about stories.” Simon goes onto pick out points such as Grand Theft Auto V made $1bn within its first week of release and “by the early 90s, Nintendo’s profits exceeded that of all the American movie studies combined.”
As a writer of alternative and speculative fiction I can learn much from the story lines that hook me in the game and indeed the standard of writing I need to work towards and aspire to. Video games are not just another form of research they are fierce competition, my work will have to compete with Medal of Honour or Grand theft Auto for the time and attention of young readers, a tough call indeed.