We asked our respondents about fantasy and SF games.
We have a late entry from Annalee Flower Horne.
I play all kinds of genre games, and have been since as long as I can remember. From text adventures as a kid to RPGs through high school and college college to the huge explosion in indie tabletop and computer games that’s happened since, the line between games and prose fiction has always been blurry to me. They’re both ways of telling stories.
Right now I’m in the middle of another play through the Mass Effect series. I’m also working my way through Star Wars: The Old Republic’s latest expansion. On the board game side, I’m playing a lot of Sentinels of the Multiverse.
Genre fiction is really good at revealing things through contrast. For example, Mary Anne Mohanraj’s The Stars Change is about humans and aliens facing a terrorist attack on a distant university planet, but it’s actually about the range of reactions that humans have to crisis. She could have told a story about any one of a hundred real crisis situations on Earth, but telling a science fiction story allowed her to use what was different—distant planets, genetic modifications, aliens—as a foil to highlight what stays the same—the indomitable courage and altruism people can show in the face of disaster.
In games, adding player choice to the equation makes contrast an even more powerful storytelling tool. In its simplest form, you make one choice and your character succeeds; another choice and they fail. But in games that allow players to see the consequences of their choices play out, the different paths a player can take stand in contrast to one another.
For instance, Mass Effect, like The Stars Change, shows how danger and devastation can bring out the best and worst in people. But here, the player has a choice in how Commander Shepard reacts. She can save the galaxy without sacrificing her idealistic values, but if she does, she has to watch friends die. If she goes instead for ruthless efficiency, some people who would have been friends turn against her, or never join her at all. And no matter what the player has her do, she can’t save everyone.
Genre fiction is all about asking ‘what if?’ and games can keep right on asking, and asking. Novelists and short fiction writers can’t usually follow every branch in the decision tree like that, but games that offer players that kind of choice invite us to really think about consequences and alternatives. We may not be able to offer readers a look down the roads not taken, but thinking like a game writer can help us be more intentional about our characters’ choices, and the impact those choices have on the worlds we’ve created for them.
On the flip side, prose writers have to get really good at significant detail. Most game writers have tools like game mechanics and visual design to help carry their story. Video games can use images and sound to convey a ton of world-building and character. Novelists and short fiction writers just have words, so we have to make more choices about what to reveal and conceal. As a short fiction writer, I don’t have the luxury of including background characters and side missions that aren’t directly relevant to the main story—I only have so much space, so every word I fill it with has to pull its weight.
A lot of game writers could benefit from bringing that kind of discipline to their work. For instance, in video games, side quests often exist to fill time. But the best ones also pull their weight in plot, characterization, and world-building. You can send your players to collect five Maguffin Eggs or chase a puppy through a swamp, but it’s much more engaging to invite them to take on missions that will meaningfully deepen their understanding of the world and its characters. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, the planet Taris is a master class in how to write engaging side-quests that matter. One quest even provides payoff on a seemingly meaningless quest chain characters go through at the beginning of Knights of The Old Republic, which was BioWare’s first Star Wars game, released eight years before The Old Republic.
Thinking like a prose writer can be a big help to tabletop game writers, too. The flavor text on Magic: The Gathering cards can be amusing, but in Sentinels of the Multiverse, the flavor text is a window into whole other stories the characters lived through before the players cracked open the box.
It’s been exciting for me to watch genre games come into their own. Like comics and movies before them, they take lessons and inspiration from prose fiction, but they really step up and become literature when they find and perfect methods of storytelling that are unique to their medium. As it becomes increasingly easier for games creators to develop their craft and get their work in front of players, I’m looking forward to seeing how their contributions to genre storytelling develop.