Play Time

One thing writers are told time and time again is to read everything they can get their hands on. You cannot be a writer unless you’re a reader; otherwise, how do you know what’s gone before? Plus, reading books allows you to see how sentences are crafted and with a keen eye you can see how a writer has enabled you to feel for a character or, in some cases, to see where they have fallen down flat with this.

But it’s not just in books where aspiring writers can pick up tips. Film and TV, obviously, are brilliant showcases for dialogue, and looking at the way directors frame camera shots and build on relationships between characters can always provide inspiration for tricky scenes. But there’s a further medium that can be looked at, too – video games.

I mentioned before about my love for Bioshock and part of that love comes from the way it’s written. There are twists that are built up throughout the game, great moments of dialogue, and the way it’s written means that, as the main character, by a certain point you’re never quite sure who to trust. And then, of course, there is the ending, which quite honestly had me tearing up. (Well, the ending I saw. There are different endings depending on your actions in game)

Since I finished that game I’ve been playing Fallout 3. Bioshock is a more linear game, where you basically move from one part to the next. Fallout is different, in that you can pretty much explore the world around you at your leisure. You can follow the main story quests, or do lots of little side quests or a mix of both…it’s up to you.

Even with this freedom, story and plot still play a major role. On top of that, the writing – especially with dialogue for so many different characters – has to take into account the potential actions of the person playing. Yes, the enemies have stock lines that get thrown at you as you fight them, but if you listen Galaxy News Radio with Three Dog (a DJ who doesn’t know what a disc is) you’ll hear him mention various places and events and, later, even hear him reporting on what your character has been doing.

The actual plot revolves around your character going out looking for his/her father, and in terms of writing, the game is very good at giving hints as to what your father might be doing, via Three Dog. And there’s a karma system to it, too. You can save certain characters or help them out, giving you karma, or…do other stuff and get negative karma. I assume. I very much help people in the game where I can. And of course, there is one character I care about more than any other, who I just want to be happy even if he keeps running away from me. Just hope he turns up at Vault 101 again soon.

images (1).jpgOne of the other games I’ve been playing is Kingdom Hearts 1.5  – the remake of the PS2 game by the same name, but this version is apparently HD or something and has two of the other games included. I’ve been focusing on replaying the main game; I know when I played years ago I got to the end, but I don’t quite remember if I actually managed to beat the final boss or not.

Kingdom Hearts is a game using characters from Final Fantasy and various Disney films. You play Sora, a FF-style kid who just wants to leave the island he lives on with his two best friends. But when a storm strikes, the friends are separated and Sora wakes up in a very strange town. He meets Goofy and Donald, on a quest to find King Mickey, and joins them hoping they can help him find his friends.

With these two familiar faces, Sora travels through various worlds including Wonderland, Agrabah, the jungle Tarzan calls his home, Ancient Greece, and many others. As for plot, it’s a fairly simple one to follow, but one which does really well in drawing in these characters and having them inhabit the same universe, as the villains gather together to try to take over the world, using the heartless to achieve their goals.

Plot wise, it has some good examples perhaps of how to take existing stories and merge them together or rework them to fit something else. And what with it being a kid’s game, although it is single player there’s a strong message of working together and the importance of friendship. Something to keep in mind if, as a writer, you’re working on writing for kids.

kh That’s only two of the many, many games out there with compelling plots and interesting characters, mainly because it just happens to be the two I’m mainly playing at the moment. There are so many others out there, and I’ll probably come back to this in a future blog post, maybe one about the sort of games I played when I was younger. But if there are any games you’d recommend, or think contain some good tips for writing, let me know in the comments.

Would You Kindly…

There are some lines – whether it’s in a book, TV show, film or, as in this case, a game – which just stick with you. Lines which when you quote to someone, they can recognize and acknowledge. As a side-note, this happens to my family a lot when we gather together, where we’ll slip into quoting Airplane!, Mel Brooks’ films and Monty Python back and forth.

One of the most recent examples of this, for me, as you might have guessed was ‘Would you kindly’ from the game Bioshock. For those who haven’t played it, the game starts with your character involved in a plane crash. You swim over to an odd, tiny island and go into a tower, where you are confronted with a huge statue of a man. Walk around a bit and you end up going down into an underwater city called Rapture. And please be aware, from this point on this post will contain spoilers.

So, while in Rapture, you hear – over your radio – a man called Atlas. And unable to help myself, I kind of fell in love with him. He’s trying to rescue his family, and he needs your help to do it. There are splicers (as a friend of mine described them, crack zombies) all around, ready to kill you, as well as the terrifyingly creepy Little Sisters, and the Big Daddys who protect them.

Making your way through Rapture, you learn a little bit more about this strange city. There are recorded diaries scattered around, and picking them up you hear the stories and thoughts of various characters, from a woman whose daughter has been taken from her, to the scientists who developed the most important aspects of Rapture.

These aspects all add up to create a world around you that just feels real. It’s like reading a fantasy novel where the author doesn’t stop and explain everything, but adds just slight touches to help you know what makes the world different from ours.

Towards the point where you’re going to confront the leader of Rapture, you come across a diary that records the moment when a scientist asks a small boy to kill his pet dog. The boy refuses, over and over, until the man says “Would you kindly strangle…” etc. On the diary you hear the boy crying and weeping as he does it, and that feeling lingers with you as you move into the office of the man you have spent the last god knows how many hours heading for.

Here, you discover something very important.

You are not in control of your own actions.

You are being controlled by someone else, almost like, well, like a character in a video game. All those little things you did for Atlas, all those times he asked you, very simply would you kindly…

Turns out, the phrase is a trigger. A trigger for mind control technology, installed when you were just a child. And this is where you discover Atlas isn’t Atlas and is in fact someone completely different and though it’s been a while since I finished the game God damn it that still hurts.

So why am I talking about this on a blog that is about writing?

Easy. Because the writing in this game is fantastic. Everything – from the smallest pieces of dialogue from the splicers, to the words you hear from the diary – adds up to make this a world you can completely plunge yourself into. And ‘would you kindly’ is so simple yet so effective, it results in you taking a step back just to absorb the whole thing. It’s slotted into Atlas’ natural dialogue. It feels real, not forced, and it’s such a simple phrase to have such devastating effects. The game goes on from this point, and it’s pretty much fueled by rage; rage at Atlas, rage at those who programmed your character to follow these orders, rage at the whole of Rapture and the fate of the Little Sisters, now in your hands. Not just for the character. The writing in this game makes you feel all of that yourself. You feel the betrayal, the anger and the happiness with the game’s ending (if, like me, you saved all the girls. I haven’t played through it again yet but I really do plan to).

And, at the end of the day, that is exactly what you want from a good piece of writing. Whether it’s film or TV or books, you need to be drawn in so completely you feel what the characters would be feeling. Yet it’s games like Bioshock that are leading the way on this sort of thing, doing it in a way that other media cannot even think of achieving. Whether you enjoy games or not, if you’re a writer or have any interest in it, I would strongly suggest you check it out for the writing along. And the crack zombies.