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By David Young · November 17, 2021
Stories are a part of who we are — they’re everywhere in our lives, and you can now get some of the best stories and storytelling from a medium that is very quickly growing and evolving: video games.
These marriages of player agency and audiovisual engagement make for a fantastic way to give people top-notch stories. In addition to being a great storytelling medium of their own, the evolution of video games to tell stories about wars, superheroes, dragons, and so on has created an opportunity to learn.
Film, in particular, can learn from video games thanks to the way that both media are audiovisual experiences. Their similarities don’t end there, and it’s because of these similarities that video games, the fastest-growing narrative medium, can teach writers how to make their screenplays all the more engaging in an age where this competitive edge is much needed.
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Every suspense writer will tell you the same thing about storytelling: you need a “ticking clock”. The ticking clock device is a way for audiences to know that a sense of urgency is in place. It’s the impending doom, the need to stop a wedding in three days, or the race to the finish line. Whether it’s competition, danger, or time itself, there’s a constraint in place that forces the character to act.
In video games, there’s a similar ticking clock element in place with almost every story. However, the most imperative thing for a ticking clock in video games is that it makes the player, the audience, feel like they must act. As the one exercising agency on a protagonist’s behalf, this personal connection to the “ticking clock” in question makes the story more compelling.
This can also be accomplished within a film narrative, though: simply enacting a more emotionally personal constraint for the audience as you write can compel the audience to sympathize with the character who’s forced to act by this constraint.
Whatever instrumental skills or tools you earn in a video game, they become relevant later on when you are forced to get yourself out of predicaments. Getting a new weapon or leveling up enough to use a wall jump to accomplish these goals doesn’t just happen willy-nilly, though. There is a plan in place: these moments where you level up are planned by a game writer, and with good game design comes a moment before you use a tool where you learn it might be useful. A ledge you couldn’t climb, a boss you couldn’t beat, whatever it is, these “out of the box” solutions are planned — and funnily enough, you should be doing the same in your screenwriting.
You can plan out how you’ll tease a specific event with foreshadowing, highlighting your character’s weaknesses or flaws to make it clear that this will be addressed by later changes in the narrative. Whatever your story is meant to be about, there’s always a way to build up this expectation in the audience — and to make discoveries more rewarding for your character and for the viewer, just like games do.
It’s not the best form of storytelling, but many film narratives often paint something a certain way for the audience without much ceremony. This could be the way a certain character is seen/mentioned as the “Funny One” by other characters, without ever really demonstrating their humor in a believable way to the audience. This could also be the case when exposition is offered through dialogue: because somebody says it’s so, then it’s so.
However, you’ve already heard that you shouldn’t tell when you can show. The same is true in games, but they take it to another level — they bring the perspective of the player into a full-on exploration of what the world is like, what characters are like, and what conflicts there are to contend with.
When you interact with all of these personally, you get a better sense of the story unfolding around you, and in film, it can be just as useful to make your protagonist be that exploratory set of eyes and ears for the audience, rather than simply taking things at face value from another, rather “forced” perspective.
Video games have proven to set the standard in entertainment for a lot of things. One of these storytelling standards is their treatment of endings, in particular. While some games go on forever, many have endings that are cathartic and make the player feel as if something has been actually achieved. This is an increasing facet of video gaming in general, as many game stories now account for player choices in diverse ways that make for varied endings and payoffs, all of which you can discover over and over again.
That’s called “replayability”, and believe it or not, films have it too. A mystery that you keep watching to notice more clues, a thriller that keeps you in suspense even after you finish it the first time, or a romantic comedy that brings you to tears (laughing or otherwise) are all replayable. This should be something that you’re shooting for no matter what story you’re telling. If the film is a real winner, audiences will want to relive it, either to feel the same experience or to get more out of it — just like with a great video game.
There’s something about video games and other forms of storytelling, especially those that transcend one type of medium, that create an interactive and social experience — for example, a fandom. Whether it’s people talking up the latest episode of What We Do In The Shadows, holding a watch party for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune on HBO Max, or comparing notes on the latest downloadable content in Doom Eternal, there’s always something about your story that can be shared. Even meme culture can make a film or TV show a shared constant between viewers — just look at the first episode of Squid Game for a great example you’ll recognize all over Instagram. But that doesn’t come easily.
Games are built to be shared; it’s an inherent trait that won’t extend to screenplays without effort. So, what is the thing that you’ll add to your narrative to make sure it is sharable? Is it a recognizable quote, like in Jaws or Candyman, or is it something that makes your story and characters unique and relatable? Stunning costumes, hilarious personalities, or deplorable, unpredictable actions — any of this can help make your story stand out and feel worth sharing between friends and fans.
There’s always room for improvement in writing — after all, writing is rewriting. But what can help more than anything is learning from other stories. This is even true of stories that don’t exist in film, like those in video games. They’re compelling, and they resonate with players enough for them to keep coming back. If that’s any indicator, it’s clear that the modern screenwriter has a lot to learn from the games that are still enchanting players today. So go, play a game or two, and learn something new! Maybe you can even call the game a write-off, you know, for research. Actually, yeah, that’s genius — I’m going to try that myself.
David Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.