Guest Post: Storytelling in Games vs. Books

Our guest post today is by the illustrious Professor Beej of the eponymous blog. He has paid me a gazill… wait, what? You mean the check bounced? He mailed me a cat?

Oh, well. It wouldn’t be here if it weren’t a crackerjack article written by one of the finest hands in our corner of the internet. So give it a read, and if you’ve a hankering to root for one of our own, head on over to his Kickstarter page and support his latest, Birthright. It’s a great-sounding project and I for one will be very happy when it succeeds. — Ardwulf

Storytelling Differences in Games and Books

Storytelling is an interesting thing. The further I dig into being a writer–especially as I work on these guest posts as a way to promote Birthrights Kickstarter campaign–the more I realize just how much various media change our perception of what we consider to be a good story.

For instance, when you’re a kid, stories start out with “Once upon a time…” and end with “…and happy ever after.” That’s it. That’s all it takes to tell a good story. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Saturday morning cartoon, a hand-me-down storybook, or Grandpa Eskimo telling you a bedtime fairy tale. If it has those two phrases, it’s a good story.

But as you get older, you start wanting more. Stories don’t have to fit into a particular format anymore. Prince Charming doesn’t always have to marry the princess, and the good guy doesn’t always have to beat the bad. There might not even be a bad guy anymore!

Then, if you’re like most of us in these parts, you start branching out from stories told in books or by TV/movies, and you discover video games. You may find a Final Fantasy title that makes you think about what it means to be human, or a BioWare RPG where your choices actually influence what story is told–whether the main character is a good guy or a bad guy.

And from that point on, you are addicted to interactive storytelling. Nothing else will do. You may try to read a book, and you get bored fifteen pages in. You try to sit down and watch a movie, and you spend more time looking at Twitter than you do looking at the screen.

So why is that? What’s so different about wiggling an analog stick or clicking a mouse and turning a page in a hardcover or clicking Next Page on your Kindle?

Center of the Universe

Well, for the most part, it’s because in video games, you are the hero. You are the one saving the day. You are center-stage, the entire reason this story is being told. Without you, the whole thing falls apart.

Or that’s the way they’re designed to make you feel.

Even if you’re playing as Cloud Strife or Commander Shepard, nothing can happen unless you want it to. You move from place to place, you decide who to talk to, and you get to make the choices that dictate the flow of the narrative.

In MMOs, there are quests that put your character in the middle of the story. Even with a huge, wide world for the avatar to explore, there are nuggets of story breadcrumbed around to bring the focus to a more personal level. Why bother exploring the Titanic Ruins of Eternal Thunder or killing Korfok the Unintelligible without a quest explaining why you should? What good does it do if the spawns will just reset in fifteen minutes, anyway?

These tasks matter to you because, when a quest centers on your character, you learn that exploring the Titanic Ruins of Eternal Thunder will provide a cure for Korfok the Unintelligible’s speech impediment, and will therefore save the village of Gobbledygook from destruction during one of the giant’s anger-fueled tantrums.

You did that. You made a difference. Like most kinds of marketing these days, being able to focus on a person’s ego compels them to invest in the story you want to tell.

Where Does That Leave Books?

In a book, movie, or TV show, ensuring gaming-level interaction is just not possible. With the exception of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, very few novels are structured to quite literally immerse the reader in the narrative.

Some books can. Pop-culture-phenomenon Twilight being one of them. Say what you want about sparkly vamps and vapid PoV characters, readers really respond to Bella Swan. Fans don’t see her as vapid and empty. Instead, they get to experience the events of the novel as the main character, not with her.

But let’s say that the characters in a book aren’t empty shells. What then? How can that book compete with the ego-tickling goodness that gaming provides?

Well, in much the same way as those games do, actually. At some point in the first few chapters of a book, there’s an inciting event. Something happens–or should happen, at least–to motivate the characters into action. They can’t just sit around and explore any longer. They have to get up and go, or else invite calamity of some sort.

And you, dear readers, are supposed to be motivated, too. The narrative hook is supposed to sink into your brainyparts and keelhaul you along behind the storyboat.

However, unlike in a video game, the story isn’t dependent on you at all. The only action you have to perform is turning the page. So unlike a video game quest, those first few chapters of a book must get you invested enough in the world, the event, and the characters that you want to keep moving forward and seeing what happens.

And from a storytelling perspective, that’s much harder to do than saying, “Go do this, and everyone will love you forever.”

Gaming and interactive stories are designed to give a more immediate and more personal payoff, whereas book, TV, and movie narratives are designed to reward audience loyalty with stronger emotional impact upon resolution.

Hybrid Theory

Which brings me back to Birthright. With this book, I wanted to see if it were possible to hybridize these approaches. I’ve done my best to build a world that draws readers in quickly and makes them want to know more about it. From the beginning, my protagonist, Ceril Bain, hints at a much larger world, one that includes technomages, their artifacts, pocket universes, and a spaceship coated in jelly.

I want the reader to be intrigued enough to see what the characters are making such a fuss about.

And for the gamers who are waiting to see how the story relates to them, I based the fundamentals of my universe on familiar MMO tech and tropes. There are Instances in Birthright, where different teams can literally be in the same place and not know it. And when the time comes, Ceril and his party are assembled based on Holy Trinity archetypes – tank, healer, and DPS.

My hope is that gamers will see these familiar ideas and themes and become invested with the narrative. I want gamers to think about how they might react if their favorite game were to put them in a situation like Birthright. How would they react in Ceril’s place?

How would you?

B.J. Keeton is currently running a  Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the firstbook in The Technomage Archiv eseries.  He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness at