Melissa Grey penned her first short story at the age of twelve and hasn’t stopped writing since. As an undergrad at Yale, she learned how ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrow at the same time, but hasn’t had much use for that skill since graduating in 2008.
Her debut novel, The Girl at Midnight, was published by Delacorte/Random House in spring 2015.
by Melissa Grey
Authors talk about their influences a lot, but I feel like the question usually revolves around the literature that inspired them more than anything else. And sure, books are super important (I believe this in the deepest, darkest parts of my heart, otherwise I wouldn’t have written The Girl at Midnight), but other types of media are equally significant in a writer’s development. I was a giant nerd growing up and so for much of my narrative education, video games were my best teacher.
I’ve been playing video games as long as I’ve had the manual dexterity to hold a controller. The first time my chubby baby hands handled a controller was a when I played The Legend of Zelda on the original NES. It was also the first time my chubby baby fist punched someone in the face when my brother–older than me by two years–tried to take said controller away from me because he wanted to play Donkey Kong. Video games aren’t all about pointing and clicking and saving the princess from the castle (when you finally find the right one). They’re interactive stories. I’ve learned as much about crafting a narrative and creating characters from video games as I have from books.
One of the fundamental building blocks in my development as a writer was the Playstation game Final Fantasy VII. I was eleven years old when it came out and it changed everything I knew about storytelling (which, admittedly, at the age of eleven wasn’t very much). Writers and artists like to throw around the phrase “Kill your darlings” but it was a meaningless idiom to me until I experienced one of the most traumatic and unexpected deaths in video game history. As Sephiroth descended, his sword held high and aimed directly at Aerith’s heart (yeah, spoiler, but it’s been eighteen years–I’m allowed to go there), I felt a seismic shift in the earth. This was how you told a story. This was how you broke a heart.
And few games I’ve come across have managed to juggle an ensemble as well as the next game in the Final Fantasy series (numbered 8 but not at all related to 7 because there is no logic in this place). I don’t think Final Fantasy 8 gets the credit it deserves and I believe part of that is because it has all the hallmarks of a YA story. The plot revolves around a group of orphans who wind up mostly at the same military academy. When the chocobo poo hits the fan, they’re unceremoniously thrust into leadership roles they’re largely ill-equipped for…and somehow rise to the occasion. The game came out when I was 12 or 13 and I still think about the tangled web of relationships between Squall, Seifer, Rinoa, Zell, Quistis, Irvine, and Selphie with alarming frequency. That game is probably so thoroughly emblazoned on my brain that I was destined to write a multi-POV YA novel from the moment I popped the first disc into my Playstation.
In terms of solo gaming narratives, Tomb Raider was a milestone for a young Melissa. I’d been raised on a steady diet of Indiana Jones movies, just like every other 80s kid, but by virtue of my gender, I’d always felt a little distanced from Indy. I’d never be a tall, roguishly handsome dude rocking an amazing hat as I journeyed out on quest after quest. I felt like I could admire the adventures of an explorer but I didn’t entertain the thought that I could inhabit that story. And then along came Lara Croft.
There are few modern video game characters as iconic as Lara. Sure, her early design was about as cheesecake as pixelated PS1 graphics could manage and it didn’t seem like her wasp-thin waist allowed for internal organs in their entirety, but her games were remarkably gender neutral. Lara wasn’t limited by being a woman. Her story wasn’t mired in the regressive language of myopic femininity. She was an adventurer who feared nothing. Not even dinosaurs. For someone who grew up playing male characters in games because that was the default, Lara Croft was nothing short of a revelation.
I started this whole shebang by mentioning The Legend of Zelda so it’s fitting that I’ll end with it as well. There are few things I love more than a good quest narrative and the Zelda games are some of the best in that arena. What made Legend stand out for me was the process of Link proving himself. It wasn’t a matter of merely surviving each level until the final boss battle. The object of Link’s quest–the Triforce–wasn’t a singular trophy. It was segmented into parts, each one symbolizing an attribute the hero earns along his (or her) journey: wisdom, power, and courage. To fulfill one’s quest, one had to combine all three. After all, what good is power without wisdom?
We are what we eat, right? I am a product of the stories that I ingested over the years. They shaped me and, in turn, they influenced the work I would eventually produce. The main character of my book, Echo, wouldn’t exist if Link and Cloud and Lara and Squall hadn’t set up camp in my brain ages ago. In a way, The Girl at Midnight is a love letter to the video games of my youth. I took the things I loved about each–the ensemble, the quest, the kickass lady hero–and combined them into a story that made me as happy as playing all those games did. And I’m going to keep on doing it as long as I can.