Videogames killed the…

Skyrim-Elder-Scrolls-V-580x348Most 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.


4 thoughts on “Videogames killed the…

  1. I would also not be overly concerned about competition from other media. There has always been outside competition. What we are really in competition with is other writers. If I was to write a more commercial teenage novel than Peter – I would win. And vice versa. This is what we’re up against. You obviously have to write the best novel you possibly can – but also be sure there’s a place in the market for it.
    For a long time, of course, boys were a lost cause – teenage novels were only ever aimed at girls. But with the advent of Alex Rider/young James Bond/Cherubs et al, that has changed significantly. Even boys will read Patrick Ness.
    The outside pressure will always be there. What we need to focus on is ‘the market’, and our own writing.
    (And I still think it’s best to focus on the girls. Popular writers – Anne Cassidy, Celia Rees, Gillian Philip and the rest – they’re only really writing for girls. They are the ones to pitch at.)

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    • Good examples of modern YA fiction (using the above) would be Anne Cassidy’s ‘Murder Notebooks’ for thrillers. Celia Rees’s ‘This Is Not Forgiveness’ (best title ever!) for contemporary social/angst drama. And Gillian Philip’s ‘ ‘Firebrand’ for fantasy.


  2. Years ago (must be about 30 years now) when computer games were a lot simpler, an acquaintance of mine was approached by a couple of lads to write a story to accompany a game they’d developed. He was an amiable chap and they were only young so he agreed to, not thinking much would come of it. I think he only wrote a couple of thousand words. They offered him 2% royalties, but he didn’t expect to see much if anything. In the event he got 4,000 quid. Which was a fair bit of money 30 years ago. For a couple of thousand words. God knows what they earn today.

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  3. Interesting piece Peter, especially as I’m considering taking a course in writing for games. So maybe one day I’ll be your competition.
    Funnily, I don’t like Skyrim but plenty do. I find the epic fantasy element cliché. Go to mount whatsit to collect the stones of thingemy. I prefer GTA for openworld despite the misogyny.
    Regarding storytelling in games, we still have a long way to go. We continue to follow the lead of cinema, but I think games will eventually develop their own narrative language.
    The Last of Us is a good example of good writing in mainstream gaming. But it would be average in film terms. It’s no Coen brothers or Woody Allen. But indie game Papers Please does something more interesting. In fact the currently thriving indie scene is our great hope for new kinds of storytelling in games.
    Food for thought Peter. Thanks

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