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Cracking the code

What I learned about story writing my first game.

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I’d always wanted to write a video game. When I was a kid, games were just another way to experience stories. Now, as an adult who writes for a living, games are becoming a new way for me to share my stories, themes, and characters with a broader audience and in a new way. Not to mention the bonus of an additional revenue stream and new community I’m slowly getting involved in, writing my first game has opened up the door to understanding story in a whole new way. 

I also want to preface, I may be able to code a game, but I’m no coder – not yet. I don’t fully understand it. I couldn’t have debates or wax on about the theory and humor of Python. I don’t even know if there is any comedy found in Python or any other coding language. Coding was the most prominent peak I had to climb to get to writing my first game, but it was also one I knew I needed to cross. 

You can’t tell your story if you’re not using the language, or form, that it works best in. 

Like with learning how to tell fiction and craft poems, I needed to show fearlessness and discipline. When I started out writing poetry, my steepest incline was understanding the technical skill of line breaks and rhythms. Fiction? It was all about learning how to put my scenes together while gaining a firm grasp of grammar and syntax. I learned all of those things back then and continue to deepen my understanding of them now. I just needed to change my mindset and see coding as another story element. 

After all, that’s all it is. That much I know. 

I’m an autodidact, so self-learning is the best way for me to go about anything at first. In the past, I could watch a video, grab a workbook, or listen to a podcast on a particular craft technique and slowly embody the lessons through repeated practice and further study. Trying to do that with coding just gave me a headache. So, I went back to an old self-learning secret. When in doubt, turn to resources aimed at children. For me, it was coding apps designed for little kids to teach them simple sequences that created small games or performed some other function like making the font bigger. 

Once I could follow instructions when it came to implementing code, I moved on to taking free or cheap classes where I learned a bit about designing games and how to code them in the language of my choice, Twine. Those classes were instrumental in helping me learn how to construct a story inside of a game and troubleshoot my code within the program. 

If you can, invest in learning from people who have already done what you are trying to do and have experience in the field. Ask them questions. Ask other students in the class questions. Don’t be afraid to explore and experiment. One of the biggest things that I learned in these classes was that the people you are learning with are your community. Reach out to them after class if they say it’s OK. I’m not someone who can always afford to take these types of classes, so another great substitute is creating a group of your own with people at your level or slightly above it. 

The growth you’ll experience while workshopping and learning can’t be found or duplicated anywhere else. True magic happens when a group of creative people gets together to learn and create something new together. There’s absolutely nothing like it. 

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Most of the classes I took were through Clarion West’s online game writing classes. They offered the precise blend of coding tutorials for Twine and creative writing lessons regarding the differences in writing for story versus game. One of the things I learned was that it’s OK to tell tales out of order, whether that means chronological or in how the story makes its way out of you. Follow the trail, connecting all parts of your story. Branching is the name of the game in…games. How do the actions of the player decide the outcome of the game? What emergent factors will come into play and create a whole new system, a whole new story?

Because at the end of the story, it’s the player’s telling. They come first, just like our readers do. The game isn’t just about telling a good story; it’s about allowing the player to create their own adventure. Always put the player first, allowing them as much control as you can, and your games will be hits. At least, that’s what Will Wright says in his MasterClass series on writing games. Follow the story threads and branches that your ideal player would take and offer them unique experiences that emerge from it. 

After learning what I needed to, I started creating small games that got progressively harder for me to code and design and added more textures or experiences. First, I started with a simple multiple-choice guided game with no coding involved and shared that with my writing group. This was to make sure I understood how to tell branching stories and think about games in a way that kept the player/reader in control. I want my games to feel and connect with the player, resonating past the medium and into their lives. 

Then, I advanced to writing games in Twine, where mechanics were more advanced and the coding heavier. So, game mechanics are how the story is played or told by the player. When discussing story in a broader sense, those game mechanics are the textures we add to develop and deepen our themes. Sitting down to try and figure out what I want my player to do concerning what is happening in the story takes several extra steps than heading in to write a scene. 

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The game’s mechanics shouldn’t be separate from its story and theme. It should all be connected if you’re trying to create a game that resonates. Project narrative director and game designer Whitney “Strix” Beltrán taught me that in an Intro to Game Writing class.

In my haunted house game, the mechanics are all connected to the past, exploration, and what the characters/players are trying to hide. If a character dies, instead of restarting the game, they become free-spirit ghosts, a part of the haunted house, just like someone would if they were to die in a home that eats souls. I have no idea how multiple deaths will affect the players and the characters they choose, what paths they’ll inevitably cross while creating their own story, or how they’ll define success. But by doing this, I’m playing on genre and player expectations to offer them something different.

And that’s the goal in writing a good game, telling a good story. 

We all have a story inside of us, and sometimes those stories are games. Those games, though, aren’t any different than the stories we tell. Creating my first game has shown me that the story I want to weave can be more to the audience than an escape. It should be an invitation to tell a story together. 

Aigner Loren Wilson is a senior fiction editor for Strange Horizons and an associate editor for the horror podcast NIGHTLIGHT. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in WIRED, Lightspeed Magazine, FIYAH, The Writer, and many more. To check out her books, games, and other writing, visit her website (aignerlwilson.com).

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