Writing Lessons from Video Games: Atmosphere

Hello again, everyone!  Now, I am not the most obsessed person in the world when it comes to video games, for the simple reason that I’ve got too many hobbies to devote all of my time to any single one of them.  I may leave my PS3 off for a week or two at a time, depending on what else I have to do.  That being said, I do love video games and I enjoy the hell out of them when I can.   Because of that, I’ve logged a lot of hours over the years and played through a good many titles, gaining some interesting insights on the subject, especially as it relates to other types of media.

In particular, I find that video games are usually a really good opportunity to experience some really good atmosphere.  Now, it’s not to say that other types of entertainment can’t pull off a similar effect, but video games just have a leg up on the idea.  Why?  To tell the truth, it’s most likely got to do with the fact that you’re the one in control, leaving you with a more immersive experience, easier.  TV and movies can immerse and enthrall you with the best of them, despite that, with clever dialogue and filming, along with exceptional music and sound effects.  Books are the ones that have it the hardest, since all you don’t have that ‘the other person is the one in control’ element (unless you’re writing a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ novel) and you’ve also missing the ability to get your audience to listen to whatever music/sound effects you’ve picked out.

But, as I said before, video games have it all.  If I wanted to talk about them all day in regards to atmosphere, I’d certainly have the opportunity: there are, after all, literally tons of great titles to discuss.  Everything from Mass Effect, Dragon Age, the Elder Scrolls series, and Fallout would definitely make the cut when it comes to providing great atmosphere by using every tool to your advantage.  After all, I doubt you can really tell me that you don’t feel like the Dragonborn him/herself when you’ve walking around, killing bad guys with ‘Sons of Skyrim’ playing in the background.  Link provided, in case you’ve never heard that track.  All that being said, none of those really win the prize for me when it comes to atmosphere.  No, that one belongs to another…

And the award goes to... Demon's Souls.

Demon’s Souls is an action adventure RPG exclusively for the PS3 that nails atmosphere like it was Paris Hilton drunk at a soiree.

Too soon?

Now, in case you can’t tell from the picture two above, the game oozes atmosphere.  It’s creepy and dark.  Most of the time, you’re alone and outnumbered against vast numbers of possessed madmen/ creatures of legend/ demons.  All that, and you’re just one lost little human, trapped in a cycle of death and despair… and it does all this with about 20 cutscenes total in the entire game (most of which are doors opening) which total maybe ten minutes, and very little actual character dialogue with the Non-Player Characters in the story.  It’s these traits that earn it my respect and my pick.

Much like Wall-E, a movie that showed how good a movie can be without a huge cast of high shelf actors or elaborate dialogue, this game shows off some impressive lessons to potential authors.  The value of ‘showing, not telling’ really sinks in when you’re wandering down a dark corridor, rats creeping around your legs and just off to your right, you hear a sharp clink from the wall.  What was that?  And then you slowly walk up to check, stepping into the sunlight and…

This is what you see.

It hooks you, it drives you, it tears into you and then it lifts you higher than you might have believed when you finally beat it.  It’s hard as hell to get used to it, but fun as nothing else is once you do.  And no, I’m not sure whether I’m talking about Demon’s Souls or writing right now.  All that being said, the lessons of Demon’s Souls on atmosphere are, ‘you don’t need great dialogue to have a great story: be subtle,’ ‘show, instead of telling,’ ‘provide a connection and let the audience make it,’ and ‘practice doesn’t make perfect: perfect practice makes perfect, so get to it.’

So, how about you?  Ever run into a book, movie, tv show, or video game that just sucked you into its atmosphere?  If so, please share it in the comments below!

Hot Genre on Genre Action, Part 2

As I mentioned last time, there’s nothing like finding something a bit unexpected when you give something a chance.  You’ve always got that moment of cautious optimism, mixed with the most suspicious glare, as if you’re simply waiting for the prime opportunity to say “I knew it was going to suck.”

An everyday use sign, sometimes.

Yet, even in the best of circumstances, you are never looking for what you’re looking for.  As strange as that sounds, stay with me.  Those who want horror will go to a writer of horror.  Those who want romance will seek out an author who is experienced with such stories, and so on.  However, for the best of those tales, unless you’re reading a fairly short story, what you end up getting isn’t a pure product.  You end up with a horror story with bits of family drama, or a romance story with traces of adventure, and so on.  In this case, however, that is actually a good thing.

One of the prime rules of action scenes is don’t overload your audience.  If it is a TV show, don’t let the fight scene exceed four or five minutes.  If it is a book and the scene goes over ten to twelve pages, you might want to start either cutting things out or breaking scenes up with a rest period somewhere.  This is because after a certain length of time, the human mind just gets kind of numb to the whole experience.  At that point, any extra cutting of limbs should go to the cutting room floor.

The puns are so... cutting.

Regardless of which way you slice it, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  This is true no matter which genre you go with – horror, romance, drama, comedy, and all the way down the line.  Just as life is made better for the unique combination of elements, so too can this principle be applied to other methods of entertainment, including video games, which brings me back to my two picks from last post: Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2.

For those that don’t know, in Fallout 3, you play an escapee from Vault 101, a fallout shelter which has shielded generations of people from the ravages of a post-nuclear war ravaged Washington D.C. that is crawling with the scum of society, radiation zombies called Ghouls, and genetically engineered Super Mutants.  While there is a main story to the game, once you get past the short introduction to the game, you are not obliged to pay any attention to it.  You could easily sink a hundred plus hours into Fallout 3 without even touching the main quest, which is reasonably easy to complete after only six or seven hours spent on it (twice that if you include the Broken Steel expansion to Fallout 3).

So, what makes F3 so great?  What makes it so attractive that you would even want to spend that much time on it?  To me, it’s the way it melds such radically different styles of role playing and shooters, with an almost equal care as to how each is handled.  You are free to develop your character in any which way that you want to and also free to make whatever choices you want as to where you want to explore and which faction you want to side with.  If you dislike shooters (like me), the game includes an auto-targeting system called V.A.T.S. that lets you focus on other factors; or if you prefer the FPS feel to things, ignore the sissy system and lay out a good dose of shotgun havoc the old fashioned way.  Combine that with a game space that literally dozens of square miles that you can explore, good storytelling, and rather ironic sense of humor based on 1950s values (dude, one of the expansions is you getting kidnapped by the Roswell aliens and fighting your way out.  Who wouldn’t love that?), and you’ve got a hot ticket.

In its own way, Mass Effect 2 is also proof positive that the key to success is knowing the right proportions to make the mixture with.  In this one, they work from the opposite direction: they start with a third person shooter and add in the RPG elements.  The shooter elements are pretty obvious, both with the recharging health and shield bars, as well the cover system that is used to get away from enemy gunfire.  The RPG elements are there, in a class system with a pool of several powers, some shared and some unique, as well as an in-combat ‘pause’ feature whenever you bring up your weapon or power menus.  The latter is somewhat of a godsend for people like me who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn normally.  Add in the epic start, the battle against the Reapers, and the awesome ending, and you’ve got an awesome story for you to play around in however you want.

Don't Mess.

So, now the question probably popping around in your mind is: ‘what has that got to do with the Athele series?’  To put it simply, that’s what our series does.  While we call it a high fantasy, it is far from just a fantastic story.  It’s drama, romance, horror, comedy, mystery and adventure all wrapped up into one well-balanced novel.  Me and Kate have read enough novels where the genre gets so saturated in the text that we’re sick of it by the time the book is finished.  Since our goal is your entertainment, we put a lot of work into the books to make sure that everything was there in just the right proportion.

So, what about you?  Have you run into a book, video game, or TV show that blended genres until it was just right?

(Please also see our other post today, about how you can donate to Nanowrimo with nothing more than a click to follow us on Twitter!)

Hot Genre on Genre Action, Part 1

I’ll start the post off by making one thing clear: I love video games.  I began a lifelong obsession with the things that started with The Legend of Zelda for the original Nintendo Entertainment System way back in 1991, at the wee age of 5.  That was probably also my first brush with a role playing game (RPG, not to be confused with a Call of Duty fanboy’s best friend), although in all honesty I remember my time with Phantasy Star IV for the Sega Genesis two years later much better – and to be fair, while the latter is quite less well known, it is a much more traditional RPG in that you start off weak and get stronger by repeatedly fighting enemies that give you experience points and gold which let you level up, buy better gear, and get better.  In Zelda, while killing enemies can get you gold and you can find items which make you stronger, the idea is more in the vein of an action-adventure RPG.

And so begins the epic duel of the RPG genres (Not pictured: Final Fantasy)

 Over the years, I’ve played an awful lot of video games.  I’ve played everything from the genre defining Final Fantasy series to more obscure titles like the Shin Megami Tensei series, runaway cult hits like Valkyrie Profile and Demon’s Souls, as well as little gems that were so bad that they were good.

Yu-Gi-Oh!: Forbidden Memories, I'm looking at you.

While I supplemented my RPG obsession with general adventure and fighting games (general stuff like the SoulCalibur, Mega Man, and Street Fighter), it could be said that I had picked my area and was more than happy to stick with it.  I let the possibilities of playing most other genres slip through my mind as completely unimportant.  Pretty close to the top of that list to let go of was shooters, especially first person shooters.

Why not?  A couple of reasons, really.  First of all, the same traits that make me good at an RPG (slow, deliberate thinking as to what is wrong and what I can do to fix it – ie, making a winning strategy), make me suck at playing shooters.  I don’t think that I’m geared to the quick reaction times necessary to be really good at the games.  Secondly, I’m used to the role playing games’ linear storylines giving me tunnel vision, of a sort.  I’m always keeping my mind on the next thread in the series of plot events, rather than obsessing over the next boss, which my overleveled characters are going to smash into paste at my earliest convenience.  This gives me a blind spot when it comes to adapting to on the fly situations, like my tank getting blown out from under me in a game of Halo.  Oh, no.  What do I do now?

I dunno', but just let me finish...

More important even than that, however, was the fact that shooters ended up boring me way too quickly.  I can get twenty hours minimum out of an RPG (in most cases, actually 2-4 times that amount), but most shooters only have a campaign that lasts six to ten hours (and that curve never gets longer, only shorter – some shooters only have a three or four hour campaign).  And once you’ve completed the campaign, what’s there to do in a shooter (especially the old school ones, before the advent of real multiplayer modes)?  At least with an RPG, I can enjoy the awesome story again, or develop my characters differently.  Why would I want to waste my time playing a game that I’m bad at, won’t give me my money’s worth in time to invest in it, and which just plain bores me to tears?

So, when a friend of mine recently invited me to come play a game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 with him, I was understandably reticent.  Nonetheless, I took up his challenge, with the fair warning that was really bad and that my traditional strategy in any shooter game is ‘spray and pray.’  And you know what?  I didn’t do that badly.  More even than that, I was really surprised by the system that they used in the game: there’s actually a level system.  And customizable weapons.  And character perks.  And a Prestige system that if this were any other genre, would have replicated the Reincarnation system from the Disgaea series of RPGs.  Someone had taken the shooter genre and deep fried it in Role Playing goodness.  And, in a surprise to me, it was fun to play.

This is my surprised face.

Which, of course, got me to thinking about all the other games which had done exactly that – taken the shooter genre of games and mixed in RPG elements to create massive success.  The two most obvious examples that I could think of were Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2.  The former is a game I still play every once in a while (when I’m not obsessing over other Bethesda games – Skyrim, I’m looking at you), while the latter is a game I enjoyed enough to bother getting the Platinum trophy for it.  Both were runaway hits and both did what they did very well, in their own ways.  But I’ll talk more about that, and how it relates to our series, next time.

Till then, I’ll leave you with a question.  Have you ever given an old dislike a new shake?  If so, was it just as bad as you remember it being, or were you pleasantly surprised by the difference over time?  Please share your stories in the comments below!