Storytelling Tips from Video Games

I love video games, though I’m not a particularly skilled player. My brother and I grew up in the Nintendo DS and Wii era and shared many moments playing together—duking it out in Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Mario Kart.I still feel nostalgic about particular games I played growing up, and during college started to regret selling my DS (though it was for a good cause: I put the money towards a writing workshop). I suppose it was inevitable, then, that in the midst of grad school and pandemic stress, I was among those who bought a Nintendo Switch.

But as an older casual player with limited free time, I started to be more picky about my game selection. I wanted stories I could immerse myself in, that had excellent characters and plots, and puzzles that would engage my brain. Though it started as a stress-relief strategy, I soon found that playing video games again also served as a creative outlet and a tool to help my writing practice.

It does make sense. After all, video games are a unique medium of telling story. It’s an interactive movie or picture book, requiring us, the players, to step into the shoes of the heroes. The interactive format certainly does put some constraints on the story, but in my experience video games still have plenty of heart and emotional beats. A lot of that emotional investment comes from identifying with the character you play as: when they succeed, we also feel happy, or when friends betray them, we feel betrayed too. As I’ve reflected on the storytelling power of video games, I wanted to share a few takeaways about stories from each of the games I’ve played over the past year or so:

Formulas & Pokémon: Shield  / Pokémon: Brilliant Diamond: Formulas work to keep fans engaged. It’s true that most of us like to be surprised or like plot twists to occur, but those twists and unexpected moments can (and perhaps should) take place in a format that most readers or audiences are familiar with. The same reason why Hallmark movies are so popular is the same reason why the Pokémon franchise is the biggest entertainment brand today: formula works to captivate audiences. We’re all curious to know how that routine gets adapted or shuffled to provide us with little surprises along the way. In writing books, using tried and true frameworks like the Hero’s Journey work similarly. At the root of it all, they all tell the same story.

Worldbuilding & Animal Crossing: New Horizons: It’s weird to include this one on a list, I suppose, but I actually designed my Animal Crossing island to reflect one of my fantasy storyworlds. It was a fun experiment and helped me think through details about my worldbuilding in a new way. For speculative fiction writers in particular, practicing creativity outside of our writing can be super beneficial to fleshing out some of those finer details about our created universes. Looking at our worlds with a new perspective can help us come up with new ideas! Even if it’s not through Animal Crossing or another video game, sketching, Pinteresting, or other artistic mediums can provide the same effect.

All my current Nintendo Switch games!

Combat & Fire Emblem: Warriors: Okay, so this one might be a cop-out. I don’t necessarily think the storyline of this game is particularly unique, but I love this game for a simple reason: the hash and slash playstyle (thankfully free of gore, which I’m not a fan of) is really, really fun. If one of my fantasy series were ever to be made into a video game, this would be what I’d want it to feel like. Picking characters with different combat styles, conducting complex missions—yeah, it’s a fun ride. Plus, as an action-adventure fantasy writer, combat and writing action scenes are part of my job. Warriors simply gives me a different way to envision and think about combat. The game’s battles are chaotic, with lots of objectives and side-objectives popping up as you proceed. Though you play as a single character, you have to be mindful of other characters’ positions and roles on the board, including if they need help. In my books, I have a lot of characters with specialized powers and ideas for big battles, and I do think this game helps me think through how the complexity of those battles should progress. I think if I’m ever in a combat-scene rut, I’ll pick this game up for a round or two on the battlefield, to help fire up my creative fight scene juices.

Raising Questions & The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: As a caveat, I haven’t beaten this game yet and I never played its original version on the Wii, so there still could be more this game will teach me. So far, I’ve been very intrigued by the story. It sets up the problem right from in the beginning, building on some existing Zelda lore, yet continues to raise more questions and build up anticipation as the story progresses. I’m hooked, genuinely wanting to know what’s happening with Zelda and what’s going on with the world below Skyloft. Little by little, each cutscene manages to move the story forward while also raising more questions about the unfolding mysteries. I’m very curious to finish the game, though it may take me a while longer… For now, I am grateful for how it’s prompted me to think about the small moments that build up momentum, rather than laying out all the story’s cards on the pages, so to speak. I’m quick to want to explain everything, yet raising and answering questions incrementally is part of what continues to make a story engaging over the long haul.

Humor & Paper Mario: The Origami King: This game is so funny. Visual gags, puns, and Bowser bemoaning the difficulties of being a single Dad all made me actually laugh out loud as I played. This game is bright, vibrant, and so clever. Much of its world construction and its villains are oriented around the idea of this being a paper world. It’s consistent, and it works so well. I admire the clever creativity of this game, and its quirky humor was inspiring to me. This game is a good example of how to establish tone and stick with it through the whole game, even in the sad or scary moments. The humor and cleverness holds, without diminishing the emotional beats. Really well done, and a good element of storytelling to be mindful of.

Just because I’m a casual gamer doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated by difficult battles or puzzles…

Characters & The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Oh boy. There’s a lot I could say about Breath of the Wild. The stunning graphics, the challenging yet not alienating gameplay, the choose-your-own-adventure quest style. It’s brilliant. I cannot wait for the sequel. But if I could take away a single piece of this game to help improve my own writing, it would be the characters. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort improving my own character developing skills, and what I appreciate about this game is its distinct, memorable cast. Even the side characters have their own stories and personalities that we get to engage with over the course of the game. The Champions are each well written, with their own unique traits, a specific power that speaks into their personality, and differing motivations for why they joined the team. Zelda has an extremely compelling narrative arc, which we get mere hints and flashes of over the course of Link’s memories, and the way her relationship with Link evolves is so good. The crazy part of this to me: all of these clear character traits and arcs don’t get a lot of screen time at all. The game’s cutscenes are very brief, and even the Champions’ journals don’t give us many more details. This game is a tremendous example of how to show characterization with a few, select details.

There you have it: storytelling tips I’ve taken from each of my Nintendo Switch games! What tips from video games have you picked up? What’s your favorite game to play?