While it may seem obvious that video game adaptations more often than not miss the mark, there’s a lot that screenwriters can learn from taking a class or writing video games. I recently took up a class on writing for video games since I wish to learn as many visual writing mediums as I can. I’ve never played much, but I took up the challenge with the desire to apply what I learn to the craft of screenwriting.
In my class, we are required to play at least one video game a week (at least play long enough to get a feel for the story) and then discuss in class. As someone who barely plays video games, it was a new experience for me to play regularly. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
A huge difference between video games and film is the amount of participation from the audience. The player is clearly more immersed in the story than the movie theatre audience, right? While the player is actively choosing certain options for their characters to take in order to further the story, the experience isn’t all that different to an engaged audience watching the character they sympathize with making decisions. The only thing missing is the choice. If you keep this in mind and write your story with decisions that keep the audience focused and sympathetic to the main character. Playing Prey (2017) is more immersive than watching the 1979 Alien movie, but there is still the feeling of being hunted that both have an equally creepy edge-of-the-seat dose.
Since gamers play for the challenge and story, it’s always a good idea to balance the difficulty and action in order to continue challenging the player but not so much that they get frustrated and quit the game. The gameplay needs to move evenly across a difficulty seesaw without ever resting too long on either end. The same goes for film. Whether it’s between action and dramatic moments or just the speed at which your narrative goes, a delicate balance must be maintained in order to keep the audience interested. If your story is stuck on setting up the plot too much in the beginning and the audience learns next to nothing about the characters, they might lose interest in the characters they’re supposed to be rooting for. Remember every aspect of the story needs to share the screen to entice the audience. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the players get options to flesh out their character with dialogue with others and explore romantic interests while the game is also very focused on battles that lead up to the impending war. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 also balances the action-packed galaxy-ending plot with character development with Quill’s father figures and Gamora.
Arguably the most important aspect of video games are the goals. Without goals, the character has nothing to strive for and the game loses its appeal. This is also immensely important in films. If the main character doesn’t have goals, no matter how small, to achieve, the audience may lose interest. While the goal of the main plotline could be the only goal in your script and it would make sense, try taking a page from video game’s code. Video games are well-known for being broken up into segments of different goals. Sometimes these goals help the player learn gameplay, but also they give short bursts of action and achievement to the player that advances them in small steps to their main goal. Think of all the test chambers in Portal that teach the player something new about their surroundings and abilities until it builds up into the main plot. Your character in your script should be tested throughout the story, not just during big moments in the main plot. You can even think of dialogue as having goals and challenges that the main character must overcome.
Video games and films are popular with escapists and so making the world as believable and enticing as possible is necessary. In video games, a lot of the exposition is given to the players in a tutorial format implanted in the gameplay. In Bioshock, the introduction to the underwater world of Rapture is given through the instructions of Atlas who teaches you the gameplay while you’re under attack. While there are small moments the player can step back and breathe, the basics about the gameplay are given under fire. The action disguises and actually makes the exposition fun. Similarly, in your script, exposition is easier to swallow during the action. This is why Sherlock Holmes has a Watson, a character who doesn’t understand who represents the audience. Then he can explain in a reasonable way to the audience, but the audience sees it as an explanation to Watson. In Zootopia, we learn about their world in a quick, low-budget play put on by the main character in her younger years. Explaining it to a surrogate audience is a popular and successful way video games emerge the gamers into their world.
Games go through rigorous testing to make sure that the players can understand the controls and more. This is extremely helpful for screenwriters too. Get some fresh eyes and minds to read your script and tell you where something doesn’t work or where it doesn’t make sense. It’s all part of the creative process. I bought a cheap competitive board game called Robot Wars once and we had to add and rewrite some confusing rules just to clarify how to win. It’s a cooperative part of editing that needs a few more moving parts with or without knowledge of how a screenplay works. If you don’t have anyone to reach out to, just try printing it out and going over a physical copy. You’ll be surprised how clear your mistakes seem.
As always, there are probably more ways than just those I’ve listed for how video games, in general, can help you look at your screenwriting in a different way, Have some of those ideas? Please share in the comments!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.