My novel’s characters can change objects by using tricks, called exploits. Using the right words or holding an image in their minds will trigger an event. These exploits resemble magical spells though the novel gives them a scientific foundation. The idea came through computer games, where a game glitch hands advantages to players, letting them walk through solid walls or turn mundane objects into weapons. Exploits gave me new ways of disturbing the characters. How would they react when first seeing an exploit? What if people duelled with exploits?
I also worked on larger scales. Game designers often develop worlds using malleable software systems, able to respond to their commands. Trees can fill one place, another could become marshy, a third might have lower gravity. Other areas could have different rules of physics. While characters must be bound by a need for drama, a changing environment offers new ways to endanger them. I stole this idea to enrich the novel’s world, letting it change under the character’s feet, allowing the narrative to move in unusual ways. This let me show new facets to their personality and develop new ways to test them. How would an eighteenth-century miller react when trees lit up around him? Would fear root him to the spot, or might he search for practical uses?
Working through games often reveals extra personality detail. This happens in books, but the learning curve differs. Progressing in games requires work, killing enemies or solving problems is tougher than turning pages. Players controlling a character for several hours may develop a strong link with the personality. Many games offer choices throughout the game, leading to differing ends, further increasing immersion and a sense of ownership. A player may feel achievement in reaching a good ending. Trial and error might be needed while playing, not something that’s often required in novels, James Joyce being a possible exception.
Readers can involve themselves with characters through empathy, where readers see similarities with themselves. A novelist may struggle to copy the immersive capacity and ownership tools open to game designers. Book characters have their path set by the author, the reader is a passive observer on a journey with one destination. Books can create immensely satisfying connections between readers and characters, they can show a vast number of dramatic states, they can explain many human responses, they’re the answer to many questions, but games extend the repertoire.
Books are different. Not better or worse, but different.
Are there lessons for aspiring novelists? Games can tell stories, using techniques hidden from novelists. As game designers learn more, as gaming platforms become more powerful, these ways of storytelling are diverging. However, rather than aping games, a novelist can draw on game ideas. I’ve had emotional experiences while playing certain games, feelings I’ve brought into my writings. I’ve experienced the Nameless One’s shock as he remembers his past in Planescape: Torment. I’ve seen the fateful conclusion of Booker De Witt’s journey in Bioshock: Infinite, experiences which will stay with me, energies to drive my work. Any novel version of these games would be a thin shadow of the original, but the emotions created can translate to other formats, including novels.
These works were developed in their current format, and only computer games could provide their impacts. Many books provide impacts which games can’t match. My solution is to game and read, to look for experiences wherever they exist.
I’ve found open ended games such as World of Warcraft, Skyrim, and Elite: Dangerous make excellent foundations for thinking about character. Having a controllable avatar makes back stories appear in my mind. What led this individual to take up herbalism, what pushed them into exploring? What are their goals, do they return to their families once I’ve finished playing? The novel looks nothing like Warcraft or Elite, but developing characters through games helps me flesh out characters for my writing.
There isn’t a ‘Character Development Gym’ in my town (I’ve checked), but working with these worlds helps me develop the muscles needed to bring my characters to life. Questions became easier to ask, and even if no answers appear, the thoughts can help to flesh out a personality. The process of building a well-rounded, intricate personality seems to happen automatically now.
As soon as I write, the personalities come. I’ve put examples in the novel.