The Career Author Podcast: Episode 121 – How Video Games Can Make You a Better Storyteller

How Video Games Can Make You a Better Storyteller

How Video Games Can Make You a Better Storyteller

If you’ve been a listener of this podcast for any period of time, then you know it’s no secret that Zach loves video games. He grew up in arcades and with an NES controller in his hands. But are they just a way for him to pass the time, or have they actually helped him improve his craft?

In answering one of his most asked questions, Zach brings non-gamer J. Thorn along for an entire episode dedicated to how video games have influenced his storytelling in writing over more than two dozen novels.

The Career Author Podcast is a podcast where co-authors J. Thorn and Zach Bohannon share their struggles and successes as full-time authors, advice for improving your writing craft, and honest discussions of what it takes to build a successful career as an author.

In this episode, you’ll discover:

  • Why video games get a bad rap
  • How video games have changed over the years
  • How playing games can help you build better worlds
  • What types of games are best for writers
  • Why video games have some of the best stories and themes in all entertainment
  • How you can develop better Choices through gaming

Also in this episode, learn how you can easily jot notes down while brainstorming in the shower.

Send us your ways and hacks – https://thecareerauthor.com/waysandhacks/ 

Leave us a comment: Do video games influence your writing? If not, what medium most inspires your stories?

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28 thoughts on “The Career Author Podcast: Episode 121 – How Video Games Can Make You a Better Storyteller

  • Morning guys. Good to see you laughing and happy, despite J’s knees.
    Interesting hack today Zach. Imagine Mrs Tolstoy, “Leo you’ve been in that shower for days what have you been doing?” “Don’t worry darling, I’ve had an idea for a book…”
    I agree with J’s “copy of a copy” suggestion; and games can’t yet give one the full five senses experience.
    But I also agree gaming can be good for some; in my last job with NATS, gamers were found to have a better chance of passing the aptitude tests to become Air Traffic Controllers.
    Another excellent thing that games teach kids indirectly is about losing and failing and how one needs to try again and again to succeed. This is valuable in a society (UK) where we have gone through a phase where kids were taught at school that every child is a winner and there are no losers, which was ridiculous because life isn’t like that.
    I experienced this with my son; I had to teach him how to lose because school didn’t. They had a sports day where every kid got a medal in every event. It was uncomfortable and embarrassing and I wasn’t the only parent who felt that.
    And I was a teacher, so I get the idea that every kid must be valued etc. but every kid must also be taught and prepared for real life, not for some fantasy life that doesn’t exist.
    Odd that I’m suggesting schools were preparing kids for a fantasy life, where one doesn’t need to try and there is no such thing as failure, whereas games were preparing kids for the reality that life can be tough and sometimes one loses or has to work hard to achieve things. Thankfully I think, schools have changed for the better.
    To answer the question I play games, but not enough to influence my writing I think, possibly because I am older and because I love reading and watching films which for me, are a stronger influence. I enjoy an hour on World of Warcraft occasionally and I’m looking forward to the updated version of Command and Conquer coming out in June I think.
    Great show.

    • Odd that I’m suggesting schools were preparing kids for a fantasy life, where one doesn’t need to try and there is no such thing as failure, whereas games were preparing kids for the reality that life can be tough and sometimes one loses or has to work hard to achieve things.

      I love that! Thanks, Chris.

    • Christopher – ugh, I actually hated when every kid got an award. Here, congrats on not having to even try. yes, I agree we need to boost kids self esteem, but not at the expense of making it so you don’t even have to try. Cure worse than they disease.

  • I love the topic this week! I can tell Zach had fun with this one. Video games have a very heavy influence on my writing. The world building and storytelling is top notch with games like Bioshock, Portal, and Control. It’s interesting to see Hollywood struggle with video game adaptations. With all of the attempts so far, I would say they still haven’t succeeded in making a good video game movie. I’m cautiously optimistic about HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation. That game is in my top 5.

    Video games are similar to animation in that the general public tends to perceive them as genres instead of mediums. With animation, people assume they’re only for kids, when really that’s just a subset of animation. Kid-friendly doesn’t mean kid-only. Animators are some of the most creative minds out there and they demonstrate that with their storytelling (Steven Universe is a good example). With video games, people assume it’s all Call of Duty and Fortnite, but multiplayer shooters are just one very specific genre within the much larger video game medium. I do think the perception of video games is shifting, but very slowly.

    I’m curious to hear Zach’s thoughts on Hellblade once he finishes it. It’s stunning what they were able to accomplish on such a small budget. The trailer for the second one looks nuts.

    • I very much have a love/hate with the adaptations. I do think it’s cool they are making The Last of Us, but at the same time, that game is already a great movie haha. I feel the same about them making an Uncharted movie. Not sure I really see the point. But we will see.

      And yeah, you’re right. It’s unfair that people look at one specific genre of games and blanket the whole industry as bad. But I do think it’s going away.

      Hellblade is amazing and I’m so ready to finish it. I have a friend whose entire back is a Senua tattoo and she is going nuts for me to finish the game so we can talk about it haha.

      • I’m more optimistic with The Last of Us than I’ve been with others because of the people involved. Neil Druckmann, who is the writer and creative director of the game, is involved in the adaptation. And then Craig Mazin made the Chernobyl series. Playstation’s new production studio, which they formed last year to have more creative control, is also involved. All of that sounds very promising.

        Have you seen any of the behind-the-scenes stuff for Hellblade? They had a really low budget, but they still wanted it to feel like a AAA game, so they built their own makeshift motion capture set up in their office. They totally succeeded in the AAA feeling. I always find that behind-the-scenes stuff really inspiring.

        • I have seen the behind the scenes. Absolutely insane. So cool what they were able to do and the 2nd game will be interesting with Microsoft behind them.

  • Hi guys! Loved this episode. I get my inspiration from real life and movies. The news gives me great ideas as well – all the crazy stuff that goes on in this world and the weirdos around us can be quite inspiring. LOL! Old cemeteries get points too!!!
    I don’t play video games anymore, but I feel like I need to. No joke – I wanna start back up again. I used to play them all of the time when I was a kid (Nintendo, Sega Genesis.) I was entertained for hours. After life changed direction when I got married and had 3 kids, holding a full time job and fitting in time to publish books, I had such a long break from video games. When I wanted to get back into them, things were so technologically advanced that I felt overwhelmed and never took steps to buy a system. I’ve always been on the fence, only because I know I will get sucked in again. It may become an addiction. Haha

    During this “Rona Quarantine” we had the chance to pick up a free Xbox from my daughters oldest guy friend. You bet your ass I drove the 30 minutes to go pick it up from his porch. Haha I’ve struggled figuring out which games to get since we picked it up. But now that Zach described all of these amazing games, I’m hoping that most of them are available on the Xbox. Those are all up my alley.
    I’m currently reading way more (including Three Story Method – using it to write my 4th book in series) and still working FT, but I am officially going to take advantage of some more ME time and start playing games again. I just need to set a timer, or I’ll get enthralled and never stop just like when I was a kid.
    Thanks for this awesome episode!

  • Loved the episode, as always. And I use to love to play video games. But, one I had an incident playing Red Dead Redemption that has been called “Lon’ three bandito limit.” I was ambushed by bandits in this open world. Respawned, said “I’m going back…” And there were more bandits. Respawned, “Ok, one more time, let’s get some dynamite, and…” Was then bushwhacked even harder. I kicked a table, not one of my finest moments, and my friend said, “I think you’ve reached your limit.”
    Video games were once an inspiration for me, yet I haven’t played in so long that they have dropped by the wayside. My big inspirations are in this order somewhat: books, anime, tv shows, comics/manga, and movies. All of them inspire me, and even depress me at times with the “Oh this writer is so good. How can I possibly compete.” But mostly it is inspiration.

  • I am a bit disappointed at the beating you gave to the Call of Duty franchise as a whole. I have spent thousands of hours working on those games while I was at Activision and Neversoft, and there is more to them than the mindless mayhem that is the multiplayer mode. One example that stands out for me is the single-player campaign mode for Call of Duty: Black Ops (the first one). It is a first-person shooter with a period piece spy thriller storyline. We hid hints and clues as foreshadowing in all of the levels, often as encrypted codes. If you don’t want to play the game or sit through a four-hour youtube walkthrough, then at least read some reviews of it. I would argue that game had a better storyline than many movies I’ve seen. I will admit that there is no story to be gained from any of the multiplayer Call of Duty games, but the same can be said for many other multiplayer games. I have also worked on many of the Guitar Hero games, and there is no story in them at all. Just vague little snippets to link the sets together. The same can be said for the numerous sports games that I have worked on as well. No story structure at all in NBA or MLB games at all. You shouldn’t single out Call of Duty as the exception for its multiplayer online mode. And you shouldn’t dismiss all of the games in this franchise as having no story of any value.

    Dumping on an entire game series that you haven’t actually played is akin to reviewing books that you haven’t even read.

    • Thanks for the comment, Scott.

      To be clear, what you’ve talked about is NOT why I’m opposed to first-person shooter games. For me, it has nothing to do with storytelling. I would not let my young son play those games because of the brutal, graphic, and realistic portrayal of violence.

    • Thanks for your comment, Scott. I’m really jealous you’ve gotten to work on all those games! That’s freaking amazing.

      I did briefly mention in that conversation that the COD campaigns do have really good stories, but it probably got lost amongst everything else we were saying. From my experience, most people I know play those games strictly for the multiplayer, which I think is part of the reason that Activision has gone back and forth on including campaigns in the games at all. The multiplayer is what most people play and makes them the most money. HOWEVER, as you said, that is not a reason to make a blanket statement on an entire franchise, which I absolutely wasn’t trying to do. I’ve played, and still do play, several COD games.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • I turn 45 this year and I finally had to admit that I love gaming, specifically PC gaming. I never had an NES or Gameboy as a kid, but my parents thought there was value in having a family PC, and I back in the day did everything I could to hunt down games. I copied thousands of lines of code out of the back of magazines. I found convenience stores that sold shareware discs beside the cash register, and the obsession grew from there.

    It’s funny, because I think of most of Zach’s examples as being console games. I haven’t been able to play Horizon Zero Dawn or Last of Us yet, but I’ve sunk so much time into Fallout, Dishonored, Witcher, Half Life, Portal, Borderlands, Wolfenstein, Prey and all the Bioshocks that they could be second jobs. I recently completed two play-throughs of the Outerworlds, a worthy Fallout New Vegas clone, and now I’m going slowly through Control because I want to savor it.

    (I think it all started with a game called Marathon, Bungie’s first game for the Mac, which combined first person shooter with exploration and storytelling that would eventually lead to Halo. The game is open source now as Aleph One and people have been using it to tell stories for more than 20 years.)

    I’ve learned so much from gaming in several areas:

    1. Milieu and Worldbuilding and how they communicate those things to the player, which translates as information flow to the reader in a story. Every game has a crucial first hour of gameplay, where they need to show the player how to interact with the game, and hook their emotions. The opening of Fallout 4 did an amazing job of this (but fell down in key areas later). Witcher 3 has an extended tutorial that serves fans familiar with the franchise while drawing in new players. It also establishes that this will be an adult story with adult characters. People make fun of the opening of Skyrim now that it’s become cliched, but I loved how it dropped me in the world, oriented itself with other Elder Scrolls games, and then a fracking dragon attacks you, setting up the stakes for the game. When I first killed a dragon, that was a satisfying moment set up from the beginning.

    Bioshock is the best example of information flow that I’ve seen in any medium. It took me several tries to get the gameplay down, but I kept going back to the game because I wanted to explore Rapture. The hook at the beginning was that good. (Once the game play clicks though, it’s amazing, and as a player I felt just as hooked on plasmids as the mutated residents of Rapture.)

    I loved the mechanic of character voices sharing their stories throughout the game, adding detail and richness, and that same mechanic is used in Prey, Dishonored and Control. (Each of these games know that players are drawn to these bits of lore, and often seeing a “lore delivery device” like a file folder in Control, triggers a fight. So you earn the lore, which creates an emotional hook. Beating the crap out of your character to give them a plot point is a great way of increasing reader engagement and getting those emotional responses Zach mentions.

    Watching game design videos (Like an interview with Ken Levine where he talks about the mechanic of the Big Daddy/Little Sister in the player’s experience of the world) changed how I think about character/world building. The game play loop of fight/gather resource/explore is something that influences how I think about pacing.. and I think readers respond to the same things now.

    2. Plot. When I learned story, it was what Eric Witchey and Jerry Oltion explained as “A character in a situation with a problem, then try/fail loop in order to move to resolution that either solves the character’s problem or doesn’t and forces change, as they move forward into a new world.” This is the basic game play/resource loop of most major games now. Try/Fail is either the main quest or a side quest, and I often think of plot progression as moving through a game.

    The character has to earn everything, just like a player. The story/world is pushing on the character just like the environment/arena forces the player into action. In the best games, hiding in a corner and sniping the boss is always the least desirable way to play. Doom 2016 does a great job of pushing the player into the arena and then reveling in destruction as they gain health only through kills. 

    Games have rules that should make sense to the player. So do books.

    Player power evolves over time in satisfying ways that can also reveal the world/mileu. So do books.

    3. Genre Language/Expectations. At least in Science Fiction and Fantasy, I could argue that we’re moving into a time when more of our readers have shared experiences through gaming than reading. Games are mass media whether mainstream media wants to admit it or not, and our readers will click with the methods and archetypes used in games. I think many new readers are coming to space opera from the perspective of Borderlands, Mass Effect, Dead Space, and even Doom. I’m very aware of how these games treat commonalities like weapons, armor, vehicles/etc. Halo so overshadows most new Mil SF that it might as well all be fan fiction. You can’t write an AI without someone being disappointed if they aren’t Cortana.

    My readers are split between retired folks who came up reading in the 60s/70s/80s (which I wish I had read more of) and younger readers who have played many of my favorite games. I’m always looking for ways to bridge those knowledge bases. 

    4. Marketing. Watching the latest trends in gaming, especially indies, is a good way to think about what you’re going to write in the future and what audiences you want to hit. Indie game developers have the same discover-ability challenges as authors, and try all kinds of unorthodox methods to gain traction. Every 10 cent Switch game on the Nintendo Store is a way to game their crappy search engine, since they’ll rise in the ranks and hang on at full price for a couple weeks after the sale. 

    5. Escape. I play games to experience a new world and to unwind. They’re entertainment. I think the best games evoke emotion, like Bioshock, Fallout, Prey and lately Control but they’re still entertainment for me. I try to remember that about my books. My readers are looking to be entertained. 

    6. Gaming Art Books are some of the cheapest you can find and they’re often amazing. I have a large collection. I flip through them when I’m looking for ideas or need help conceptualizing an area. Many have pages of assets from the game, like weapons, uniforms, characters, etc. The art book for Bioshock Infinite is also a great example of how a project evolves over time and ideas get dropped or changed, just like editing a book.

    TL/DR, apparently I’m more passionate about this than I realized.

    • One other thing I forgot to note about player/character power. Every game seems to have a point where the player becomes overpowered and the game might be fun for a while, but then my enjoyment drops off and it gets boring fast. I might keep playing for the story, but I usually stop. Same thing with characters. It’s hard to keep power-balance in check in a way that keeps people following the character forward, especially across a series. For me, this is where you build the team, get a ship, add new skill trees for each new level with different try/fail challenges, and then new plot points open up, creating opportunities for new stories.

    • Tons of great points. Can’t agree more. Especially with the marketing stuff. It’s really funny to see the stuff being pulled on the Switch eShop because their visibility is so poor. I follow the industry really close myself, and what some of the better indies are doing is pretty amazing.

  • Really enjoyed this episode guys, brings me back to the days we played network Doom on our lunch breaks (showing my age now – that was the early nineties). Love the idea of using VR to check out settings. Imagine if we could configure the character personalities, then load the dialogue from our novels, see they sound and behave, basically like a test run. Wow.
    I’m enjoying three story method, bought the workbook too (eBook) but haven’t started that yet (knee deep in editing along with day job). J, you mentioned in episode 118 (working from home ) that you’d ordered a type of standing desk – did it arrive yet? Love to hear how you’re getting on, with some details of the make and model etc. I badly need to sit less, not great for my back.

  • I’m late to the party, as I’m behind on my podcasts.

    Zach. Dude. I read stuff all the time where I say to myself “this author clearly gets their gun information from video games.”

    I am not alone in this.

    People in the know tend to find the gun stuff in my books pretty accurate. They should because back in the Bad Old Days that’s what I did for a living.

    SO dime me up if you need info on boomsticks.

    I’ve learned so much from you guys, it’s the least I can do.

  • Zach – you were talking about how choices in video games can change the direction of the game and the ending. Back in the day – there was a text adventure (ala Zork) for Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. If you’ve read the books or listened to the BBC audio broadcasts, you’ll know that the Zorgons are invading earth and you need to eat the peanuts in the pub so you don’t get sick when they beam you on board. Well – after spending hours and hours working through this game – remember it’s all text and typed commands to figure everything out – you get on the vogon ship and back in time, so you are on the ship when they are about to blow up the earth to make way for a hyperspace highway. IF you DID NOT give the dog peanuts at the beginning of the game …. he’s hungry and eats the ships which are actually tiny like a ladybug – and you are on the ship. End of game. Brutal. Now you had to through it all again and remember to feed him peanuts at the beginning. Didn’t matter if you had a save point because it would be after the beginning so you had to start over to feed that damn dog.

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