The day before I wrote this article, I happened to watch an old episode of “NCIS” on TV which revolved around online games. Bizarrely, the plot revolved around a fictional online multiplayer survival horror game called “Fear Tower 3” (god, I miss the early-mid 2000s!). Needless to say, this episode is hilarious to watch for how it handles the topic of gaming – with the stand-out moment being a gloriously silly videogame-like sequence at the end.
So, this made me think about the topic of fictional videogames. Writers, in all mediums, will usually come up with fictional videogames for a number of reasons. Not only can you make the game a better fit for your story, but you can also sidestep possible copyright issues, make various points about videogames and do all sorts of other things if you come up with a fictional game for your story’s characters to play.
If you’ve grown up with games, then you’ll have no trouble coming up with these (and, chances are, you’ve probably already got loads of ideas for games that you would make if you could). But, if you haven’t played many games, then I thought that I’d offer a few tips for how to include realistic fictional videogames in your stories:
1) Play games! It’s easier (and cheaper) than you might think: Simply put, you actually need to play some games. This doesn’t mean that you have to devote every waking hour to gaming or spend lots of money on keeping up with the absolute latest games (and the expensive hardware needed to play them) or even be part of “gamer culture”, but you need to be reasonably familiar with the basic features of the medium. You need to be familiar with the experience of playing games.
It doesn’t matter if you play old or new games, well-known games or obscure games, single-player or multi-player games, console/phone games or PC games, fast-paced action games or slow-paced puzzle games etc… the important thing is to actually play some games. Seriously, when it comes to inventing fictional games, nothing beats hands-on experience with actual games to show you what games are actually like.
But, if you’re totally new to games, then a word of warning. If a modern game (whether it is “free to play” or one you have to buy) starts asking you to pay real money for things like extra turns, extra in-game currency/items/weapons/costumes, randomised “loot boxes” etc… then avoid it like the plague! These games are designed to get you to spend, spend and spend some more in a similar way to a gambling machine.
So, if you don’t have a large gaming budget, but own a computer (no matter how old or low-spec) and want to play some honest free games that are actually free, then take a look at some of these games:
-“Beneath A Steel Sky” – a dystopian sci-fi puzzle/adventure game from the 1990s that was later officially released for free.
– “Freedoom” – A version of the classic 1990s sci-fi/horror action game “Doom” that adds new freely-licenced graphics, sounds and levels to the officially released free source code. You’ll need to use Freedoom with a free “source port” program designed for your computer’s operating system (eg: Windows, Linux, MacOs etc…).
– “Rosemary” – A short and free horror/gothic “point and click” adventure game involving time/memory manipulation.
– “Hurrican” – This is a freeware 2D action platformer game, inspired by the old “Turrican” games. It only exists in a Windows version on the site, but it is open-source, so someone somewhere could possibly make a Linux version.
– “Supertux” – This is a freeware “Super Mario”-inspired 2D platform game featuring an adorable penguin (the Linux mascot, Tux), which is compatible with Linux, Windows and MacOS.
– “Open Arena” – This is a freeware 3D first-person shooter game inspired by “Quake 3” that also includes both single and multi player modes. It will also work with Linux and MacOS as well as Windows.
– “Tyrian 2000” – A top down “shoot em up” spaceship game from the 1990s that was later officially released as freeware.
Likewise, if you’re worried about time or you’ve read the stories about “game addiction” that were in the press last year, then my advice would be to stick to single-player games (especially older ones). No matter how grippingly compelling a single-player game is, you can usually save your progress (so you can easily put the game down and pick it up later) and, equally importantly, there is also usually a defined ending to the game too.
2) Read up on the gaming business: As you probably guessed from the caveats I gave in the previous part of this article, the business side of gaming isn’t always the best thing in the world. Yes, games themselves are absolutely awesome. But, they are often expensive to make and this can sometimes result in some rather dubious business practices.
So, do some research into this. This will help you to add a bit of realistic cynicism to your fictional depictions of games.
On a lighter note, be sure look online for information about how old game designers and/or modern low-budget game designers had to use all sorts of clever tricks to make their games seem more impressive, despite budgetary or technical limitations. Once you learn how to spot this kind of thing, then it can give your story a real ring of authenticity. A classic example of this are the old “Resident Evil” games – here’s a screenshot from one of them:
This is a screenshot from the 2000 PC version of “Resident Evil 3” (1999).
This game was produced in the late 1990s/early 2000s and it still looks reasonably good. This is mostly because, in order to get the game to run on old computers and games consoles, the designers used “realistic” pre-painted 2D backgrounds. As such, the only “moving parts” that the computer has to handle are a few basic 3D characters that are super-imposed onto these 2D backgrounds. This allowed the designers to create a cool-looking game that will run on some very low-spec hardware.
3) Learn about game design: In addition to doing some online research into all of the different types of games out there, also be sure to do some research into how games are designed. This doesn’t mean that you have to learn how to program (I mean, I don’t really know how to program), but a basic knowledge of game design principles can help you to add an air of authenticity to your fictional videogames.
The best places to find out this kind of information are on Youtube channels that are dedicated to this topic. Some of the more famous examples include channels like “Extra Credits” and “Game Maker’s Toolkit“.
Not only are these types of documentary videos absolutely fascinating in their own right (so, set aside time for binge-watching) but they will also help to train you to think like a game designer, which will help you to come up with more interesting and/or realistic fictional videogames for your story.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂