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MIND MELD: How Games Inspire Our Creativity

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Many of us creative type folks grew up playing story telling games of one kind or another. Video games with their visuals, role playing games with that allowed us to create our own characters and worlds, and board games of different types. How did those experiences influence our creative pursuits? What games are we still enjoying? With that in mind, I asked our panelists the following question:

Q:Why is gaming important for the development of your other creative pursuits? Have any video games you’ve played been especially influential in your career?

Beth Cato
Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham. She’s the author of The Clockwork Dagger (a 2015 finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel) and The Clockwork Crown from Harper Voyager. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.


From the time I was four, I was stapling together my own illustrated books and saying I would grow up to be an author, but video games are what really set me on that path. In particular, Final Fantasy II (IVj) for Super Nintendo. I had played and enjoyed many games, but the story in FFII was so deep, so immersive. I wasn’t just a fan; I wanted to live the game. I was twelve years old and I wanted to be Rosa when I grew up, a powerful white wizard and archer. I soon started reading adult fantasy novels like Dragonlance, which gave me another layer of obsession. I desperately wanted magic to be real.

I started writing novels of my own… wretched things that were never completed and should probably be burned for the good of humanity. I played more video games that also fueled my imagination – Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Warrior IV – and most notably, Final Fantasy III (VI). Always, though, Final Fantasy II was my all-time favorite.

To answer the question on other creative pursuits: In the late ’90s, I joined an online mailing group for Final Fantasy, and that’s how I met my husband. At our wedding in 2000, I walked down the aisle to the series theme.

Fast forward another decade. I started writing again, and I went back to the obsession of my youth: healing magic. I wrote a novel about a superpowered healer, which connected me with my agent. That book didn’t sell, but my next effort featured a steampunk take on healers: The Clockwork Dagger. My inspiration for Octavia Leander goes directly back to Rosa from Final Fantasy II. The major religion of the book, the Lady’s Tree, is also inspired by the Mana Tree from the game Secret of Mana.

Fandom is a powerful thing. It has changed my life and made me who I am today. That’s why, when I talk to younger writers, I encourage them to follow their video game or anime passions – write fanfic and go on from there!

James L. Sutter
James Lafond Sutter is a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and the Executive Editor for Paizo Publishing. He’s the author of the novels Death’s Heretic (ranked #3 on Barnes and Noble’s Best Fantasy of 2011) and The Redemption Engine, as well as a wealth of short stories, comics, and award-winning gaming products. Check out his writing, music, and more at jameslsutter.com, or chat with him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.

As someone who’s been creating tabletop RPGs as my day job for more than a decade now, I find that my writing is hugely influenced by the lessons I’ve learned in gaming— I’ve in fact written entire essays on the subject. In a game like Pathfinder, coming up with characters and really getting inside their heads is perfect practice for figuring out what characters in a novel would do, and as a Game Master, figuring out how to entice, corral, and challenge actual free-willed individuals comes in handy when you want to create believable reactions and reasons for your characters to follow a plot. Games show us the storytelling value of structure, such as in creating limited and understandable magic systems, and of breaking it—in my own work, for instance, I enjoy highlighting problems with the black-and-white alignment system traditional to RPGs. From world-building to characters to rising action, basically every skill you need as a storyteller can be honed through gaming.

But for me, the biggest impact of gaming is the inspiration factor. Like movies and books, games can show us new worlds, but the greater degree of freedom—the ability to walk left instead of right, to look inside that cave or try to jump off the drawbridge—gives you a sense of immersion and engages your drive toward exploration. They don’t just tell you stories, they make you wonder what’s over that next horizon.

I can still remember spending countless school bus rides poring over the graph paper map printed in the first edition Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. It didn’t matter (and in fact probably helped) that it looked like something I could have drawn myself in twenty minutes—those little empty squares held mystery. Why were the chambers shaped the way they were? What was the statue in the middle of Room D? What hid behind those secret doors? Video games held the same appeal, whether it was the old gold-box D&D games and Microprose’s unparalleled Master of Magic (which generated a new random world map every time you played!) or staples like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda (which I still haven’t explored completely—I never said I was good at video games). In recent years, I feel that the Playstation game Journey best embodies that spirit—a game with no combat or dialogue, simply a beautiful and eerie world to explore.

As a writer, whether of games, fiction, or comics, that need to know more is the feeling I’m most interested in leaving the reader with. To ask more questions than you answer—but in a way that leaves people feel intrigued rather than cheated—is to set the hook. And while you may only be able to tell one story at a time, if you can spark the reader’s curiosity—if you can get them to lie awake at night imagining that mysterious city you only alluded to in two sentences—then they’ll tell themselves a story, and there’s no limit to the adventures you can inspire.

Josh Vogt
A full-time freelance writer, Josh Vogt has seen all sides of the publishing industry and is signed with Folio Literary Agency to get his fantasy novels to readers. A book reviewer and SF Signal contributor, you can find him at JRVogt.com, Write-Strong.com, or on Twitter @JRVogt.

As a lifelong gamer, with both tabletop and video games, I’ve always found myself drawn to those games with strong stories and characters rather than just a unique gameplay element. Sure, shoot-em-ups are a fun stress reliever and strategy games get the noggin’ working, but I am far more satisfied with a game when I feel truly invested in the storyline and characters. When it transcends just beating another boss level for the sake of more loot and makes you really care about the consequences of your actions.

Some of my favorites include Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, the Neverwinter series, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bioshock, Fallout, and the Elder Scrolls. And that’s not to mention the many tabletop RPGs that have lured me in over the years—some of which I now get to write for!

As an author, all of these games and many more have challenged me to view situations from perspectives quite unlike my own. It has pushed me to think around traditional approaches to a problem and see how different motivations, alignments, dreams, and backstories can dramatically change a situation. And they’ve inspired me to try and create stories and characters that readers come to care about and feel invested in as well. It can’t all just be flashy fight scenes and nifty magic or tech being spotlighted. Characters can’t just be all quirk and banter. There has to be some underlying substance, true stakes and risk and loss (or the potential for it) if a novel or tale of any sort is to have more lasting impact.

On top of that, video games have shown me the power of dialogue. Sometimes the most poignant part of a game isn’t the fall of any grand foe but the conversations the characters have as they tromp along their quest—or the quiet revelations they offer you at turning points…plus how you respond in turn. These are the moments where you have the chance to make the world and people populating it feel real, that they’re breathing and dreaming and their fates matter.

Of course, getting awesome loot and weapons along the way isn’t a bad bargain either!

Monica Valentinelli
Monica is a writer, editor, and developer. Recently, she announced that The Gorramn Shiniest Language Guide and Dictionary in the ‘Verse for the Firefly TV show will be available in Spring 2016 from Titan Publishing. She is also currently working on Modiphius Entertainment’s Conan RPG based on the literary works of Robert E. Howard, and is co-editing Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling for Apex Book Company. For more about Monica, visit her website at http://www.mlvwrites.com.

Because playing in a world is a different kind of immersion than reading a novel/comic set in that world, I feel that the interactive nature of games can provide a visceral experience that’s great for storytellers like myself who love music and art. There are a lot of unique worlds present in games today that are evocative, fresh, and inspiring because they give you the ability to take action in a beautifully-drawn environment with amazing soundtracks. There’s so many great ideas to cue off of, that I’ve found it’s easy to spend more time researching for my own settings than I should. (To correct this, I had to rein my creativity back in!) I’m now more married to outlining than I have been in the past, and this helps me stay focused on the story or the script as opposed to the fiddly bits. In addition to a process change, I’ve also started to add little easter eggs into my work that careful readers might pick up on. In truth, I haven’t completely done away with obsessing over fiddly bits… I’ve merely channeled them into something new.

In terms of video games being influential… Oh, if I had to pick just one, I’d have to say Final Fantasy IX, because it was my first experience with the Final Fantasy games. That was my introduction to a world that had magic, science, steampunk, spirits, monsters, moogles, mythology, chocobos, easter eggs… But it also triggered different emotions, because the story wasn’t flat. There were some silly bits, romantic moments, thrilling scenes, epic fights, a ridiculous frog puzzle… FF IX helped me think more about dimensional worldbuilding, dynamic characters, and a tiered method of storytelling that made it possible to have so many different components in one world at the same time. Plus, that ending? That was a gut punch. And yet, despite all of the many and varied elements within this game, it had a fantastic story beating at the heart of it. What’s not to like?

Nathan Beittenmiller
Nathan Beittenmiller is a fantasy and science fiction writer with a strange German name that almost no one can pronounce. He’s a veteran of the 2014 Writing Excuses retreat, received an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest, and recently helped run the successful and well-received 2015 DFW Writers Convention. By day, he’s theoretically a software developer, but is usually in meetings, dreaming about the next part of a story. You can follow his antics on Twitter at https://twitter.com/beittenc

dfw writers conferenceGaming is extremely important for the development of my other creating pursuits for a number of reasons. Games allow me to connect with a story by directly participating in it. For things like role playing games, I can engage in a narrative more deeply and thoroughly than even a great book allows. At other times, games allow me to occupy part of my brain with simple, yet rewarding tasks, freeing up other parts to work on creative problems that sometimes plague an ongoing manuscript.

But for all that, the most important thing gaming has done for me to date is allowing me to meet new people. I play a lot of online games with people from around the globe. I’ve met people from different backgrounds and cultures, with different ideals and beliefs, and it’s shown me precisely how diverse our own world is. In turn, that’s allowed me to create more diverse characters and cultures of my own, knowing that if this planet has all these different facets, the rest of the universe must be even more amazing. It’s also given me a bit of hope too because, despite our differences, we could still find some commonality in our love of a game and its environment. I’d like to think that we can expand little similarities like that into hope for the future rather than dystopia and destruction.
Carrie Patel
Carrie Patel is an author, narrative designer, and expatriate Texan. She works for Obsidian Entertainment and most recently wrote for their acclaimed fantasy RPG Pillars of Eternity. She is also the author of The Buried Life, a murder mystery set in an underground city, and Cities and Thrones, the sequel. You can reach her on Twitter at @Carrie_Patel.

I grew up playing Nintendo and Atari games with my sisters and parents. I developed many fond memories of gaming and came to associate the pursuit with challenge, discovery, and family fun.However, my relationship with gaming changed when my parents got a PC and started buying adventure games. Starting with titles like The Colonel’s Bequest, King’s Quest III, and Simon the Sorcerer, I began to appreciate games as a medium for interactive storytelling and plot-related puzzles.I enjoy many kinds of games today, but as a novelist and a narrative designer, many of the games I’ve found most creatively stimulating have been single-player, story-driven experiences set in secondary worlds. I’ve consumed them much in the same way that I read books—quietly and often alone, when I can shut out distractions and soak up the details.What I appreciate most about them is the examples they provide for worldbuilding and the way they fill out stories and settings with numerous minor, colorful characters.Worldbuilding is a significant part of writing science fiction and fantasy, and many adventure games and RPGs are constructed around rich, detailed secondary worlds. These games make use of many tools—music, visual design, dialogue, level layout, and the ubiquitous dropped notes and adventurers’ journals—to define and flavor their settings. The interactive nature of gaming leaves players free to explore these details at their own pace. In a game like Morrowind, you can read dozens of books about the history and legends of the world of Tamriel, or you can see the boundaries of imperial authority as you move from cobbled streets flanked by boxy houses and centurion-like guards to alien cities built from giant mushrooms and carapaces with hardly a human in sight.RPGs and adventure games in particular also hint at the myriad micro-stories that exist behind that grand, overarching plot. Novels and films most often track the actions of a few key characters, but games allow the player to get to know numerous minor characters—NPCs. In fact, lots of gameplay is often based around meeting these characters, understanding what they want, and helping or thwarting them. In that way, the player gets a dose of worldbuilding, character development, and storytelling through interacting with these individuals on the sidelines. It’s another aspect of game design that rounds out the setting and adds to the richness and density of the world. When done well, it also leaves the player room to mentally fill in the details around these characters—where they came from and where they’re headed after their brief interactions with the player.

One of the games that was most influential for me as a writer and narrative designer was The Colonel’s Bequest. It was one of the first adventure games I played, and the character-driven storytelling synched perfectly with the murder mystery plot. The puzzles and hidden areas of the game forced the player to learn resourcefulness and to get to know the colorful and suspicious characters in order to untangle the mystery.

Quest for Glory IV was my first foray into RPGs, and though the RPG elements were relatively light, it felt new and exciting to experience the story through a character that I was building and naming and for whom I was making minor decisions. I felt connected to my protagonist and responsible for his actions in a way that I hadn’t before, and it was a lesson for me about the relationship between agency and immersion.

More recently, I enjoyed Mass Effect and they way it framed the player’s role in the world through tons of tiny interactions. You begin with a specific role—you’re a decorated military commander thrust in the middle of contentious and evolving galactic politics. Yet the way you play that character and the minor but numerous decisions you make—how you respond to the galactic leaders commanding you, whether you live by the book or break all the rules—determine how your Commander Shepard leaves her mark on the galaxy. It shows that the sum of many small, moment-to-moment decisions—and not just the big ones—truly defines a character.

Jen Williams
Jen Williams is a fantasy writer from London, where she lives with her partner, their cat, and too many games consoles. The first two books in her epic fantasy trilogy, The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost are out now, with the final volume, The Silver Tide, out in February 2016. She is also the co-creator and co-host of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, which meets in London once a month. She takes Thundercats far too seriously, is very partial to mead if you’re buying, and can be found on Twitter under the handle @sennydreadful

I’ve been a gamer for about as long as I can remember. Possibly it’s genetic – one of my earliest memories is of hanging off the top of my brother’s bunk bed, watching my mum play some sort of fruit machine game on what was probably my brother’s Atari. My dad bought me a Gameboy back when they looked like large, friendly grey bricks, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I write very character driven books, where – I hope – the reader gets to know the characters well, and comes to care about them. Most of all, I want the reader to feel like they go on those journeys too; that the world is immersive, that the quest is personal. Video games, when they are very good, are both immersive and personal. Mass Effect, the space opera trilogy from Bioware is an example of this (okay, let’s not be coy: I think it’s the greatest video game ever made, okay?). Mass Effect was so immersive, so beautiful, and so hugely personal, that there are tracks on the soundtrack I can’t listen to without shedding a few tears. That level of storytelling is to be admired in any medium.

But more specifically, the biggest influence on me has been Bioware’s other big RPG franchise, Dragon Age. When I first picked up Dragon Age: Origins, I knew nothing about it, but it had a dragon on the front made of blood, so it seemed like my cup of tea. At the time, I hadn’t read any traditional fantasy for a number of years, and certainly hadn’t contemplated writing any. DA changed all that. Rather than the stuffy and slightly po-faced genre I thought it was, Dragon Age gave me epic fantasy with deep relationships and consequences, with funny lines and with characters I would come to love as friends. I quickly grew obsessed with it, and eventually I thought, “I want to be writing this. I want to write epic fantasy with jokes and love and tragedy, and a huge affection for all the tropes.” And so I started writing The Copper Promise, and praise be to Andraste for that.


About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at https://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com/ where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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