I am a video gamer. Have been since I first learned how to play Super Mario Brothers. Then came Half Life, Half Life: Opposing Force, Age of Empires 1 &2, and Mechwarrior 3. All games with a story that hooked the player into it.
I remember the night I beat Mechwarrior 3. It was a school night, I was a sophomore in high school then. I believe it was a Thursday. Everybody else in the house was asleep, except for me. I had stayed up late to finish homework, and figured I’d reward myself with a quick attempt at beating the current level I had paused on last. Mechwarrior is one of those games with a deep, engrossing storyline, from tabletop to computers to the fairly well-written books, with a strong continuity. And yours truly was a junkie for mech-on-mech combat.
It should come as no surprise that Mong the Magnificent arrived at this point, proclaiming “it’ll only take a couple more levels to beat the game, why not give it a go?” So I did. Mind you, Mong visited sometime around 2100. Near 0300, I finally killed Galaxy Commander Brendon Corbett, after playing the last half of the game!
I didn’t notice the passage of time because I was busily having fun and enjoying a beautifully crafted story. I got approximately 2 hours of shut eye, made it through class, and slept like a dead man when I came home. But I felt accomplished. I felt I had done something that mattered, even if only to me.
If story matters, then the elements within that story are what sell it. Video games are unique in that they are not simply something we view with our eyes, but hear with our ears, and physically participate in. Video game stories are more than just “move Character A from position X to position .” I own the original Halo soundtrack on CD. The music helped make that game. And it could really play on your nerves.
I remember hating the Covenant, but I feared the Flood. Listen to the music and notice from one level to another how much worse trying to move through a night time jungle shrouded in mist while fighting off the parasitic hell creatures of the Flood, compared with simply fending off Covenant boarding parties. It makes a difference both in the atmosphere of the game and how players respond.
Do we as writers take the time to really play on our readers’ emotions? Do we set the atmosphere such that they are drawn in? Halo’s game designers deliberately added certain factors, which lend to the emotional state of the player- it’s jungle, everything is dark, you’ve got ersatz music playing on frayed nerves, and now you’re running around in the dark, chased by zombies, your NPC teammates are dropping every time you take contact, and you’re lost.
I’ll say that again: YOU ARE LOST. There is no magic beacon telling you how far you have to go to reach safety. You’re simply running as fast as you can and trying not to become a lunchable for zombies. Oh, and you’re low on ammo. It’s rough on the psyche. As it should be.
When we can draw out strong emotional responses, even negative feelings, from our readers, from our viewers, we’re doing something right. When we can help direct them a certain way, through sound, through character experience and interaction, we’re doing something right. We’re creating a story that people will recommend to others. If we’ve set it up for a sequel, we’re absolutely going to get readers coming back and buying our wares again. They’re mentally, emotionally, and physically invested in what we’re doing.
Fear shouldn’t be the only thing we can create, but it ought to be in our repertoire. Constant joy is only good if your name is Joel Osteen. Fiction readers want the whole emotional roller coaster, from fight to flight and everything in between. Examine the matter for yourself, look at what readers are demanding, and figure out how you’re going to fill that need they possess. Because readers represent buyers, with cash. And brother, exposure doesn’t pay the rent, or put shoes on your feet, but money? Money talks. Just like a well-crafted story talks to the emotional state and soul of the reader.