16 Bit Minds: How Video Games Influenced My Writing

SNES Controller

Despite being a writer, I’ve never been much of a reader.

I know my credibility (or ethos; remember that for a later post) just crashed through roof, but allow me to defend myself. While I wasn’t much of a reader, I did read big. I skipped right past teen fiction and went straight for Stephen King (The Green Mile), John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany), Yan Martel (Life of Pi), and Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes)—most of those before I was even in high school.

I wasn’t much of a reader because I was a gamer. In fact, most of my life I preferred a controller in my hands than a book. And yet, at the heart of it, it was through video games that I became a storyteller.

16 Bit Minds

I grew up in a simpler time, when the backstory of a videogame was in the instruction manual (and I was one of the few people who actually read it). Most games consisted of “move left to right and jump on all the things”, and you had no moral conundrums about stabbing an orc in the face or breaking into a house and smashing all the pots for money (I do think Link’s tendency for silence and sociopathic destruction of other people’s property would make him ripe for a Chuck Palahniuk novel). Narrative tour-de-force’s like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite were barely even conceivable in our 16 bit minds. Sure there were Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy III and Crono Trigger that were highly regarded for their complex and epic story lines, but I never actually played them until I was in my 20s. Believe it or not, it was in the silence that I found my love of storytelling—it was the story not told on the screen that fascinated me. In the absence of story, my mind filled in the blanks. Harvest Moon, a farming simulator, became a harrowing, tragic love story. Pokemon evolved beyond the video game and anime into complex, sometimes dark, adventures. In my mind I would fill in the dialogue of the silent protagonist, and add even more harrowing details to the plot. I would imagine entire conversations between the hero and NPCs (non-playable characters) outside of the one or two lines of text they were given.

I am error message from Zelda 2
Which, you know, may not be a bad thing

The first 3D era of video games brought with it a huge change not only in graphics, but also in the capacity to tell stories. Somehow I ended up creating my own meta story. Every game I played was merely a “world” and a group of characters (in my mind, of course) entered these worlds via an interdimensional portal (the video game console). Soul Calibur was no longer just fighting a string of combatants to become the champion; in my mind it was a fight to save the world. Need for Speed wasn’t just about getting first place, it was about winning the championship or else the driver’s friend would be killed by a mafia-like organization. In Pilotwings 64 I was flying my missile-equipped gyrocopter against all sorts of imaginary evils. Every game I played became one part of an overarching story that I just kept building on.

And it was videogames that, ultimately, catapulted me into becoming a storyteller.

Zombie Chihuahuas and The Apocalypse

Resident Evil scared the crap out of me. From the threatening ambiance, to the moans of zombies, to the OH MY GOD THOSE DOGS JUST JUMPED THROUGH THE WINDOW, it was very unnerving for a young teen with an overactive imagination. And the only way I could get back at it was to make fun of it. It started off as a stop-motion LEGO movie I made with my friend, Daimon (also another future post), but eventually I sat down and decided to write it. And then something happened as I was writing it: I realized I was having fun. It was like playing a game that I was making up as I went along, and I could take the story in whatever direction I wanted, even if it had nothing to do with the game. The characters were smarmy and sarcastic (I was reading Carl Hiassen and Douglas Adams at the time, so no surprise there), but more importantly they were my own. It may be hard to pin down, but somewhere between the zombie Chihuahuas, 90s pop-culture references (“I see dead people”), and a villain named Ragbert Whisker, I realized that I wanted to be a writer. Not just a “I’ll write bad fan fiction on the weekend” kind of writer, but a “I want to write forever” kind of writer. The thrill of crafting a story from start to finish—a long story with lots of characters—was thrilling. And having grown up on Cracked magazine, Mel Brooks movies and Monty Python, humour and spoof came naturally to me. The first story ended up at 36 pages—not bad for a 14 year old. I wrote two sequels, each one drifting farther and farther from the original games and becoming my own story.

But that wasn’t the last time a video game would jumpstart my dormant love for writing.

Crumbled buildings and desolation

After I became a Muslim, I stopped writing for over a year. It was a time of learning and growing for me—incubation, if you will. Within that year, a lot of things happened to me, and I felt that my writing was expendable, just a hobby that was stressing me out too much for all the additional stresses that were going on in my life. I shelved my writing, not realizing then what its worth was to me. I didn’t even write in my journal during this time, something I now regret since it feels like this huge chunk of time in my life that was just nebulous and indefinable. When I got divorced, I moved back to my parents place and wasn’t sure what to do with my life. I thought more about writing, but I didn’t know what to write about.

Then I emerged from Vault 101.

Fallout 3 was released in October, 2008. In it, you play a character who leaves the safety of their underground home, Vault 101, and must traverse the post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of their father. I’ve never been as drawn into the rich details of a video game world as I was with Fallout 3. The desolation, the danger, the ruins of our world was captivating and exciting. As when I was younger, I began to imagine stories beyond the stories that were being told. My thoughts became my character’s thoughts. I imagined myself making the difficult moral choices the character had to make. I became absorbed in the ruins of the world, and I felt the intrinsic desire of storytelling again. My fingers, well exercised by the controller, longed for the keyboard again.

The first story I wrote in over a year, fittingly titled “Awake”, was set 20 years after the events of Fallout 3, with my own characters and my own story. I remember smiling as the old excitement and rush of writing flowed through me again. I wrote three stories set in the Fallout 3 world, each one 40-60 pages long. It was like the apocalypse resurrected my passion for writing. And in my journal, May 6, I wrote: “I’m writing again, can you believe that, I’m freaking writing again.”

I haven’t stopped since.

4 thoughts on “16 Bit Minds: How Video Games Influenced My Writing

  1. Pingback: The Earth and Everything On It | Muslisms

  2. Pingback: Why I’m Not Playing Pokemon Go – Muslisms

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