Using Game Elements in Your Writing

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Video games have been around for almost 50 years now.  From the early days of Space Invaders through todays MMORPGs (Massively multiplayer online games), most of us, it’s fair to say, have grown up having played them, either in the arcades, or via home consoles.

Having started from basic 8-bit graphics and evolving to today’s amazing Unreal Engine-based graphics, games have also gained in complexity, mainly with the storylines in each adventure.  Whereas Pac-Man was a simple basic story about a guy getting chased by four hungry ghosts, many new releases have complex storylines rivaling a Netflix original series.

As an author, how can you incorporate some of these game elements into your own storytelling?  What are game elements anyway?

I’ll use one of my favorite game franchises as an example – Resident Evil.  The survival horror genre is one of the most popular in video games and also includes other titles like the Silent Hill series (another of my faves).  When these games first came out for the Sony PlayStation 1 back in the mid 1990s, they were big hits worldwide, and that’s mainly due to the storytelling elements that the games incorporated.

You had compelling characters, a plot, and lots of backstory which allowed those franchises to create lots of sequels, spin-off movies and even a Netflix Series.   When I would play Resident Evil, I always preferred using the Jill Valentine character as she was the most versatile and could “carry” more items in her arsenal.  She moved faster as well. 

As part of the special law enforcement team S.T.A.R.S., she and her compatriots found themselves in a mansion filled with zombies and other monsters created in a genetic engineering lab run by the infamous Umbrella Corporation, which was developing a bio-weapon that went out of control.  The different installments of the game introduced new characters all falling under this basic premise, which is why it’s endured for almost 30 years now. 

The thing about video games in general, going all the way back to the beginning, is that they have a very specific structure that you might notice popping up in modern day novels, movies and such (Like Ready Player One).    

One game trope that’s endured is the idea of a “Level Boss”, and this isn’t even unique to game structure.  In fact, Bruce Lee’s original idea for “Game of Death” literally uses Level Bosses in his Pagoda fight sequence (the only footage that was shot for the movie which was eventually completed using stand-ins and look-alikes).

When one thinks about Level Bosses, the Super Mario franchise immediately comes to mind.  As you’d play through all the worlds, you’d finish a level by facing off against a baddie and would advance to the next level once you beat them.  Finally, at the end of the game you’d face Bowser (or Wario, depending on the game) the main villain behind all the mischief.

This idea can easily be translated to action genre or sci-fi stories where your hero(es) are against a specific villain.  Even the original 1960s campy Batman TV show had tons of Henchmen.   James Bond’s nemesis always had a level boss (ie. OddJob, Jaws, etc.) that Bond had to finish off before getting to the main bad guy.

By having your protagonist defeat various Level Bosses on the way to the climax, they can have character growth that helps build the arc you’re writing.

If you’re writing a more character-based piece (rather than action or adventure), translate the idea of Level Bosses into obstacles of increasing difficulty.  Each obstacle is greater than the previous, giving your protagonist clear character growth in the story.

Another gaming idea that works great in stories is the “Power-Up”.  This is a device that gives your hero more skill, knowledge, strength, etc. – something that helps them in their adventure.  In video games, you’d find something like a First-Aid kit that gave you more life, a special mushroom that would give you super size and extra life against enemies, or a special weapon with increased firepower. 

Power-Ups are great with mysteries.  Each new clue that brings the protagonist closer to solving the mystery can be thought of as a Power-Up.  Though it doesn’t bestow super powers, it does help to solve the puzzle.

Speaking of puzzles, many of the great adventure video games incorporate these into the storytelling and plot.  The games Resident Evil and Silent Hill make extensive use of having the gamer solve small puzzles to advance through the game.   It makes the game more fun, and if your story can make use of this device, it can be a great addition too.

Games also have Levels, from the various Pac-Man boards to the Mario Worlds, to the first-person shooters of the 21st Century.  One can think of these as Acts, like a play (or screenplay’s) three-act structure. 

Yes, gaming has incorporated a lot of storytelling.  Consider applying some gaming into your own storytelling.

Happy Writing!