Here’s Another Thing Computer And Video Games Can Teach Writers And Artists

Although I hadn’t planned to write another article about how playing computer and video games can be useful for writers and artists, I played a game that made me think about this topic again.

Although I’ll post a full review of it tomorrow, I ended up buying an old computer game from 2001 called “X-COM: Enforcer” the day before I wrote this article. Since I’d planned to do other stuff, I thought that I’d just quickly test it out for ten minutes after it had finished downloading. I ended up playing it for three hours.

This is a screenshot from “X-COM: Enforcer” (2001).

The interesting thing is that it isn’t really a very imaginative game, but it’s still incredibly compellingly fun because of the clever way that it has been designed. Although it is the literal dictionary definition of a mindless shoot-em-up game, the game’s design ensures that the player keeps playing it.

The game’s levels are short, which encourages you to play “just one more level”. When one of the game’s monsters is defeated, they drop a bonus item that must be picked up within about ten seconds – which encourages a thrillingly fast-paced playing style. The player also often fights large numbers of relatively weak monsters, which adds suspense whilst also making the player feel more powerful at the same time.

The game’s aiming and weapon selection system is heavily simplified- which encourages the player to play quickly, spontaneously and impulsively. The game’s slightly cartoonish and unrealistic visual style prevents the constant combat from being grim or disturbing. The game frequently includes encouraging voice-overs that are designed to make the player feel like they are an expert. The game’s soundtrack is fast-paced and repetitive, which encourages fast-paced play.

I could go on for a while, but the cumulative effect of all of these “small” design decisions is to make the game a thrillingly fun experience that makes the player want to play more, even though it’s a silly shoot-em-up game that could otherwise be described as “generic” or “mindless”.

But, what does this have to do with art or writing?

Well, a lot actually. The subtle ways you “design” your story or artwork will determine how your audience experiences it.

Remember how I mentioned that a game’s short levels can encourage the player to play “one more level”?

Well, a similar principle is often used in modern thriller novels. Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is the most famous example of this, but there’s a reason why many thriller novels often include very short chapters. This principle is also why traditional webcomics can be binge-read easily, but a proper graphic novel might be read more slowly.

Remember how I mentioned that simplifying elements of a game can make it more quick and impulsive?

Well, the style of writing that you use in a story can affect how quickly the audience reads it. Likewise, the level of detail in a piece of art can determine where the audience’s attention is focused (eg: if one part of a painting is more detailed than another, then the audience’s attention will be drawn to that area).

Remember how I mentioned that a more cartoonish style can change the emotional tone of a game?

Well, things like colour choices (eg: different colour schemes can evoke different moods) and different drawing styles can also have a similar effect on how your audience feels when they look at one of your paintings or drawings.

I could probably go on for quite a while, but “small” and subtle decisions like these have a huge impact on how your audience feels, experiences and responds to the things you create. So, yes, the small things matter – and games often contain lots of great examples of this type of thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Don’t More Writers Use This Awesome Story Structure?

Yay! Vikings :)

Yay! Vikings 🙂

I was looking through some old books of mine a few weeks ago, when I stumbled across a copy of Terry Jones’ “The Saga Of Erik The Viking“. Since I had vague memories of reading it when I was a lot younger, I thought that I’d take another look at it as an adult (who makes art and thinks that vikings are really cool).

And I was amazed!

Not only did I rediscover a brilliantly timeless (and ageless) story with far more unearthly horrors and fearsome monsters in it than I remembered, I also had a much greater appreciation for Michael Foreman’s excellent watercolour illustrations and lineart than I did back before I became an artist.

But, most importantly of all, eight words in the blurb on the inside cover really jumped out at me.

Those words were “Each chapter forms a complete story in itself“.

And, yes, they do. You can read the whole book cover to cover or (like I did when I was re-reading it) you can just skip to interesting-looking chapters. As long as you read the beginning before you read the ending, you can read the rest of the book in any literally order that you want to.

The whole story is technically a linear story (like most stories) but each chapter usually just begins with a very brief description of the main characters moving on from the events of the previous chapter (eg: “After they had celebrated their safe arrival on shore…“) and then the rest of the chapter is basically just a self-contained short story which ends with Erik and the vikings either staying somewhere or getting back on their longship and travelling somewhere else.

Apart from possibly Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics (where most volumes of the comic are completely self-contained parts of a larger story), I’ve never seen any other stories which use this kind of structure. And, the strange thing is, it really works. In fact, it may well be the best story structure ever created.

Why? Well, because it puts the reader in control of both the path of the story and the story’s length too. If you don’t really feel like reading a whole book, then you can just read a couple of chapters and still come away feeling satisfied. Likewise, if you want to read the interesting-looking chapters first and then read the other chapters later, you can do this too. It’s totally up to you.

Best of all, this structure is perfectly suited to one of my favourite genres of fiction – I am, of course, talking about “exploratory storytelling“. In case you’ve never heard of this genre before, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect it to be – exploratory stories are basically just open-ended stories about exploring strange and interesting places.

Because you can read the chapters of ” Erik The Viking” in any order that you want to, it goes from being an ordinary linear story to being an interesting collection of tales which – best of all – can be explored rather than just simply read. It might sound like I’m exaggerating here, but this structure really changed how I saw the entire book.

This structure could also be fairly good for writers who, like me, are absolutely terrible at writing longer stories (or was when I was writing fiction regularly). This is because it’s like the perfect middle ground between writing a novel and writing a short story collection. You can write a series of short stories

Since short story collections are nowhere near as popular or attractive to publishers as they used to be, this could be the perfect way of disguising your short story collection as a novel (with all of the gravitas and popularity that comes with this).

Seriously, I don’t know why more writers don’t use this structure for their books – it’s absolutely amazing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂