Wednesday 11 August 2010

How to use a video game to write fiction

I posted an open call for suggestions for blog entries on Twitter, and the lovely Dan Powell came up with "Timesplitters". That was actually related to a Facebook conversation on Saturday about how I wished someone would open a Timesplitter theme park, and I tried to think of ways I could incorporate a video game into a blog post on a blog that attempts to be connected to writing.

This may or may not work, but I'm going to use Timesplitters 2 as a reference point for exploring story structure! I know, it isn't a perfect game, with its hammy dialogue and contrived plot, but for our purposes, it's ideal.

For those who haven't played it, the game is set in the 25th Century. You play Sergeant Cortez, a space marine (who looks suspiciously like Vin Diesel). War is raging between humanity and an evil alien race known as the Timesplitters. They use time crystals to zip about in time, changing history to bring Earth to ruin (slightly more labourious than invasion, but there you go). Cortez heads off into Time to try and get the last few crystals. Each level is the time period he visits, and he takes the form to match those eras. My personal favourite is the bounty hunter in the Wild West - even if you fire your pistol in the air, the bullet still makes a ricochet sound. Brilliant!

A problem shared...
All narratives work best with some kind of problem that must be solved. The opening cut scene of the game sets out this problem - in this case, the Time Crystals are stolen by the evil Timesplitters, and Cortez must leap about in time looking for them. The good news is, you don't have to write sci-fi, action thrillers or even video game scripts for this to apply. Think of all those romantic comedies where the boy and girl must overcome some kind of hurdle before they can get together. Humanity is forever setting itself tasks or causing itself problems, so if you can think of a problem that must be solved, then you can think up a narrative (or have a reason to hire the A-Team - your choice). a problem halved
Now, you can't solve your problem too quickly, or it'll be too boring. It's also not realistic. Imagine if the Na'vi had just sat down with the mining corporation and worked out an amicable arrangement over tea and biscuits. No Avatar! (I say that like it would be a bad thing...) Or what if Captain Barbossa realised Elizabeth was lying about being Bootstrap's daughter and let her go? No Pirates of the Caribbean! Marion Crane would have saved herself a whole world of trouble if she'd just put the money back in the safe, and not decided to spend the night at the Bates Motel.

So you need to put obstacles in the way. Political corruption, physical distance, differences in temperament, mutant abilities, a bank robbery gone wrong, a natural disaster - I'm sure you can think of something. Look at Tomb Raider - Lara Croft doesn't just waltz into a cave system and find what she's looking for within a few minutes. No, you have to guide her through an implausibly large labyrinth of puzzles before you can get anywhere near the ancient artefact. Whether your obstacles are literal or metaphorical, you need them. In Timesplitters 2, the obstacles are physical, in the form of the anonymous henchmen you dispatch throughout each level, as well as the 'puzzles' you sometimes have to solve. (i.e. pick this up, take it over there, turn that lever, go somewhere else etc.).

Aiding and abetting
It is rare that your character will have to "go it alone", and aid is often given in some form or other. In Timesplitters 2, you get information or maps from Anya. She randomly radios Cortez across the barrier of Time to tell him (and, by extension, you) what to do. You also get a second character as an anchor to the level, someone who's already up against the bad guys. In Rear Window, Jeff solves the mystery with the help of his girlfriend, Lisa. Even Harry Potter needs Hermione and Ron before he can get the job done. Try and think up good, solid supporting characters to help your hero or heroine along. They will often have abilities or skills that your hero lacks - without them, your hero or heroine can't finish the job. This isn't as bad as it sounds - your hero/heroine needs to have flaws if your reader is going to relate to them.

Location, location, location
Location is incredibly important to your story, and the time travel nature of Timesplitters 2 means that Cortez travels between a myriad of different locations and time periods. Costume and props (not to mention weapons) change to suit the era, and each level offers its own challenges. You can't exactly dodge flying robots in the Wild West, and you're unlikely to encounter angry 1920s mobsters in an Aztec jungle! Give a thought to setting, including basic iconography and costume, to ground your story.

The minor triumph
The episodic, level-based format of Timesplitters 2 also highlights the importance of the minor triumph. By all means set your character a major problem to solve, but if you give them smaller ones to deal with throughout the narrative, it keeps the reader hooked for the whole story arc. Look at Lord of the Rings - Frodo doesn't just have to get the Ring to Mordor, he has to make it through the Mines of Moria, survive various Orc attacks and avoid betrayal by Gollum. The completion of each mini quest takes him one step closer to his goal. It's the same with Cortez - every time you complete a level, you've collected a Crystal and mended the rift in Space/Time, but you still need all of them before you can defeat the Timesplitters. The minor victories give you the momentum to continue.

The Final Chapter
The levels progress in difficulty, just as the minor quests in your narrative should grow in difficulty and complexity. Look at the challenges faced by Perseus in Clash of the Titans - each of the smaller victories serves to teach the hero a new skill, or help them to develop an ability, before the final episode. In this 'cut scene' the problem is solved, and the narrative is resolved. In this case, Cortez retrieves all of the crystals, and manages to blow up the space station overrun by Timesplitters. Whether you have a happy ending, or a sad one, the problem will need to be solved in some way in this final scene...unless of course you want your reader to go away feeling unfulfilled and a tad bemused. Probably best to avoid this option, unless you're secretly James Joyce.

So there you have it! A video game can teach you a lot about story structure, so now you have an excuse to play them!


Laura Eno said...

Great post, Icy! I don't play video games (Mario defeats me) but your structure is valid without it.
You mention LotR, which I've seen mentioned several times lately. I must confess I've never read it. *hangs head in shame* I must fix that oversight soon. :)

Eric J. Krause said...

Excellent post! All those hours I spent on video games as a kid really did help with my writing! You bring up many excellent points, and they go along so well with most adventure-type video games.

dan powell said...

Just wonderful. With this blog post you have managed to validate all the hours I spent playing Timesplitters 2 and TS:FP. In fact, you have me hankering to dig out my copies and have another crack through them. So great to read a post about two of my favourite things, writing and Timesplitters. Now if you had just shoehorned in Burnout 2 this would officially be the best blog post ever!!!!

Icy Sedgwick said...

I'm so glad to validate video game time.

Who wants to come round mine and play co-op Timesplitters 2?!

dan powell said...

I'll bring the biscuits, you put the kettle on.

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