Novels, Video Games, and Finding Inspiration in the Wrong Medium
I have a confession: I’m a bad writer.
No, this isn’t some pitying, grasping essay of self-flagellation. It’s an admission. I am not saying I’m a bad writer because I don’t pursue the efforts of my craft, or because I don’t write enough, or even because I don’t read enough (which, really, I don’t). I’m not even saying I’m a bad writer because of the blackened self-doubt that rots me inside out (though it does feel like a slow-killing poison).
I’m saying it because my deepest, most profound inspiration isn’t found in the novels that I spend so much of my time hoping to emulate and perfect. That, despite my greatest desire is to be a well known and well read and widely respected novelist, it’s not within novels that I find my deepest joys as a writer.
I was around twenty years old when I realized that my biggest writing inspiration—the true source of my narrative drive—wasn’t the medium of my craft. It remains as true an admission now as it was then.
It’s not within the pages of novels that I stoke the fires of my creative imagination.
It’s in video games.
I clearly remember a moment almost ten years ago, at work in another forgettable dead-end job, when a friend of mine texted me. Elated to be taken from my wage-labor torture for even a scant second, I scanned the message: I’ve been looking for more books to read lately, I need inspiration. What are the books that inspire you? You write so much.
I thought about it. I spent the rest of that shift thinking about it.
When I came to my conclusion I don’t think the response text was what my friend expected to read: Xenosaga. Silent Hill. Final Fantasy. NieR. Metal Gear Solid.
Yes, I’m a novelist. I’ve published novels and short stories and essays. I’ve been writing seriously since I was in high school. I have two novels in the works right now (that I should probably get back to instead of writing this). Though my heart beats for this medium, the apex of my novel-writing inspiration has never existed in the eidolon of other novels—it’s been forged in video games.
While I enjoy novels of course, there’s often a determined rigidity to the craft. Video games are so nascent compared to other artistic mediums that their narratives are widely experimental. There are truly wild journeys in gaming that run the gamut of our human experience, whose scope can be so galactic or so infinitesimal that their exploration of theme often feels as if it moves beyond boundary.
I’ve always been an avid reader. When I was a kid my personal distractions were mostly harmless, as I would prefer to delve into my impenetrable stack of library books than deal with schoolwork. Video games didn’t enter my life until my early teens, not for real. I had of course always been aware of them, mostly through entries such as Sonic the Hedgehog or Kirby. Sonic was particularly arresting for me (Sega’s focus on pandering to twelve-year-old boys seemed to have worked).
It wasn’t until seventh grade that I felt a marvelous and monumental tonal shift.
One day, my buddy met me at school and pressed a floppy-disc into my hand, coupled with a note scrawled in a young boy’s handwriting. On the disc was Final Fantasy IV (then, in America, Final Fantasy II) and an emulator. On the note were instructions. Determined to find out what exactly I had been gifted with, I rushed home after school that day, completely ignorant to how my life would change from that moment. While it may look sub-par by today’s standards, the opening scrawl of Final Fantasy IV completely arrested me. I didn’t know it then, but the format of the RPG would rewire something fierce in my brain. All of the love I had for novels—for structure, for adventure, for narration—was there in that genre, was in Final Fantasy, but in a playable format that leaped from the page. This was a novel, not as I had known them but a novel all the same, one complete with customizable characters and formidable foes and bombastic music.
The RPG—to me, unconscious, in that moment—felt like the true ascension of the novel.
My first series Kognition, a quadrilogy, is completely rooted in gaming. I poured my love for video games into that series as a young twenty-something, my wounded work days distilled into fevered nights of angry writing, scribbling down every idea that came to me in a desperate attempt to forge some creativity from my disillusioned daily grind. Kognition was penned not only as a love letter to role playing games but to every video game that had ever sunk its imaginative claws into me. My first series was a personal Bible of idea-vomit regurgitated through both unconscious details and genre tropes. As I wrote, as I experienced, the clarity turned from glass to crystal, and I was subconsciously delving into a part of myself that I would come to love whole-heartedly, the part of myself that was truly, deeply, inspired by video games.
That experience untethered my imagination, and since then I feel as though my writing has been able to grow side by side with the games I enjoy.
Over the last year and change I have been actively writing video game essays. Completely disillusioned by game journalism and disinterested in the archaic format of scaled reviews, I’ve thrown myself into the world of dissecting what I enjoy about gaming from a narrative perspective. What is it in video games that is so compelling? There are so many games that have moved me in both form and function, from the ludonarrative dissonance of your walking simulators and indie darlings to the unexpected presence of the AAA, games have evolved at such a rapid pace over the course of my life that I have been blessed again and again by their incredible reach of imagination.
As a thirty-something, I’ve lived with the natural growth of gaming since its modern boom. In my lifetime I’ve been blessed with the privilege of watching Super Mario Bros. become Super Mario Odyssey. I’ve witnessed not just the graphical upscaling of Final Fantasy but enjoyed the full transformation of its hero’s journey, the narrative uncoupling of game play from story design. The aspects of gaming that have influenced my writing have been far more abstract than the summary of their story lines—it’s the untethered imagination in video games that has me rushing back to my laptop, epiphany at my fingertips.
Often, as exercise, I will replay old favorites to glean some new inspiration, often to write as a new essay but more frequently in a search for clarity in my personal work. The stories and characters of my novels are inspired by common video game tropes, but instead of seeking some creative emancipation from these recognizable beats I embrace them. I want to be the sort of writer whose readers are fervently engrossed in the story only to stop at some clever moment, remembrance dawning on their faces as they comfortably fall into the wildness of a JRPG as they turn the pages of a book. This is a playground to me, a unification of ideas—video games and novels are not as separate as we pretend them to be, and both can greatly benefit from one another.
For a substantial chunk of my life, Final Fantasy VIII has been one of my absolute favorite video games. While often panned as a black sheep of the franchise, it is a game that is deeply personal for me, as I resonate strongly with its characters and the melancholy of its bleakly technological world. The inspiration I’ve drawn from Final Fantasy VIII alone has been substantial, as the characters have been a wealth of emotional stability. While the actual writing in older RPGs can be somewhat truncated and poor, video games have the ability to offset their own flaws by the wealth of different features that coalesce into the complete experience. This is where the inspiration of video game to novel comes through, as it forces me to look at my own writing through a wider lens and appreciate what I can do in a book that might extend beyond the traditions of the page.
While so many video games continue to push their narratives through wanton and brutal violence (and this criticism of video games still has merit), there are so many niche and nuanced experiences waiting in the medium that authors can take inspiration from, both as a point of craft and what sort of emotions they can draw from their readers. Games such as Flower, Thomas Was Alone, Journey, Gone Home, and To The Moon craft their narratives through an impressive mixture of verbal and non-verbal moments, but it is these strong non-verbal instances of environmental storytelling that sit with me long past the initial experiences and transfer into my writing by way of outside-of-the-box experimentation and creativity.
Flower and Journey, for example, build extremely strong narrative through completely non-verbal tales crafted from the expression of their worlds. Flower does not need endless text walls of exposition to impress upon the player its cautionary tale of industrialization versus nature. Journey—a game that is multi-player by means of a randomized use of the Playstation Network—is a cooperative experience built against a sprawling and beautiful landscape of gilded sand dunes and intricate, ancient artifacts. This sort of “natural” and subtle world-based storytelling is something I deeply aspire to reach in my own writing, as worlds in science-fiction and fantasy can carry monumental amounts of secondary narrative if crafted correctly, eschewing the need entirely for wordy exposition blocks.
Florence, a breathtaking and heart-wrenching game that is both very short and completely non-verbal, builds an entire relationship between two people in less time than it takes to watch a film. Its reliance on expression is so serene that it has inspired me to return to every interpersonal moment in my own novel and examine how I can better showcase emotion and nuance between characters without relying on unnecessary duologue or adjectives. Florence is a puzzle, and it tells its story by simplifying its human experiences as much as possible to showcase only the raw, real essence of its characters. Video games like Florence are inspiring because they show us that crafting narrative is possible in ways we never consider, and that sort of creativity should be what we all aspire toward when making our stories as human as they can be.
Recently I rolled credits on NieR: Replicant, Taro Yoko’s “version update” of the original NieR, a wildly experimental action-RPG from ten years ago. While Taro Yoko’s games and his public persona have earned him the moniker of the eccentric, it’s his narrative creativity that heavily inspires me. Actually, when it comes to personal inspiration for my stories, Taro Yoko is often near the top. He makes no move to shy away from the strangeness present in his stories, and beyond video games his narratives often reach outside of the medium by existing as audio dramas, novels, and stage plays. NieR is a series of unflinching sadness and despair, a brutal look at how humankind’s obsession with violence will only lead down the path of ruin.
It is the wildness of NieR that inspires me, and Taro Yoko’s insistence that the overall vibe of the story matters more in the end than the convoluted and detailed coherence of the worlds commonly found in fantasy and science-fiction. While it is important to make certain the details of your novel come together in some serviceable fashion, Taro Yoko is the sort of creator who has determined that in the long run, the feelings gleaned from a particular story are more important than the bevy of clever details that will be rapidly forgotten by the reader. This focus on the characters over the plot lends itself to an aspect of science-fiction and fantasy that I’ve become more obsessed with as I’ve also become more and more disenchanted by the exhausting detail of books such as A Song of Ice and Fire. This design theory of feeling over detail, of vibe over lore is something I’ve personally become more enamored with as I’ve worked steadily on my newer novels. While this method, of course, does not work for every genre and subgenre, it’s an especially important facet of New Weird and more mainstream fantasy.
Video games are important. We no longer live in an era where gaming is considered geeky, niche, or casual. Many of your favorite contemporary writers in genre fiction have grown up playing Final Fantasy, and whether or not they are ready to admit it, these inspirations bleed into us and affect our writing style, inspiration, and narrative. Video games and game writing should not exist separately from the world of short stories and novels—they should be tandem comrades, as each medium has ways to benefit the other. The more we embrace our hobbies, the more we find ourselves able to look outside our beloved medium for inspirations, the better our novels and short stories will become.
If you’re aiming to write the next grand and sweeping space opera or fantasy adventure, consider that “RPG-like” is not an admonishment of your world, but a praise—give in to the weirdness and creativity of your favorite video game and see how enormously it can feed your imagination. Video games like Death Stranding, Disco Elysium and 13 Sentinels might be what brings us into the next golden age of the novel, the spark we need to elevate the creative aspect of our beloved medium.
Uncovered logs from the distant past and the future beyond.