How Video Games Made me a Better Writer

When I was a child, there were two activities near and dear to my heart: playing video games and reading books. Books allowed me to engage and learn about strange and unknown worlds, while video games would immerse me in those worlds.

In this blog, I will  be telling you about three games that inspired me as a writer.

1. Chrono Trigger

Japanese Box Art, Courtesy of Creative Commons

This game recently celebrated its 20th anniversary on March 11th. Chrono Trigger is a Japanese Role-Playing game (JRPG) about a teenage swordsman named Crono,  who unites with his friends (including a heroic frog and a robot) from  across millions of years to stop an apocalyptic event from occurring.

Are you familiar with The Monomyth? Also known as The Hero’s Journey, mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about this globally occurring story structure.   Many games, books, television shows, films and so on follow this structure. To an extent, Chrono Trigger follows The Monomyth.


Diagram of The Monomyth, Courtesy of Creative Commons

So what makes this game as beloved as it is? Not only was it one of the first role-playing games to feature multiple endings depending on when you finish, but the outcome of the story is affected by the player’s actions. Even the actions you perform at the fairground during the beginning of the game (eating someone’s lunch that isn’t yours, being impolite to others, etc.) changes the game’s story.

Writing (whether creative or technical) is all about the decisions the writer makes. How would a character respond in a given situation? What does that say about the character’s personality or world-view?   Sometimes, what is left unwritten in a text is just as fascinating  as what is written.   Chrono Trigger does not fully explain every aspect of its story, leaving mystery in aspects of its time travel and the apocalyptic danger.

2. Earthbound

Screenshot of a mousy conversation, courtesy of Pinterest

Released in the summer of 1994 for the SNES, this quirky JRPG  parodies the United States.  Its director and writer Shigesato Itoi (famed in Japan as a copywriter and essayist [and Iron Chef Judge!]) designed a charming world where everyone has something interesting or funny to say. In the game you play as a young teenage boy named Ness, who is told  by a fly (yes, a fly) that he is destined to save the world from an evil force. What follows is a journey involving musicians, aggressive hippies, drinking coffee in a hot spring,  the Loch Ness Monster, and other strangeness.

Earthbound is a simplistic looking game, but it is spirited in its message of hope and cooperation. Part of what inspires me about Itoi’s writing is his attention to detail with every character’s dialogue, and how he creates setting in the variety of locations one visits in the game. Writing isn’t  just about the big picture, but the little inter-working parts that comprise the big picture!

The game’s optimistic and hopeful tone regarding the power of humanity inspires me to this day. English translator for Earthbound Marcus Lindblom described it this way, “I think if you approach EarthBound with an open mind, you’ll find that it’s really a glass half full kind of game….It’s meant to be a positive thing about always progressing, always getting better, always moving forward towards an ultimate goal.”

3. Metroid

Artwork Courtesy of Creative Commons

This game was released before I was born (1986), but I still find inspiration in Metroid‘s minimalist story. Taking inspiration from the movie Alien, Metroid is about a female bounty hunter named Samus Aran, who infiltrates a planetary base of space pirates (unfortunately they do not have parrots or peg legs) to defeat their leader, Mother Brain.

The interesting aspect of this story is that the protagonist is not revealed to be a woman until the very end of the game; even the instruction manual refers to Samus as a he. This turn of expectations of who can or cannot be  a hardened warrior is excellent.  After hours of exploring the tunnels of the planet Zebes, collecting supplies, weapons, special moves, etc. the player becomes attached to the survival of Samus.  This lone hunter only has her wits and weapons to fend off hundreds of alien creatures.

What makes writing exciting isn’t the twists and turns – it’s the build up to the twists and turns.  A great twist causes the audience to reevaluate all the previous parts of a story.  Metroid subverts the expectation of an action hero and laid the groundwork for future female protagonists in video games.  When writing creatively I try to surprise readers, rather than  play to stereotypes and cliches.

Are there any games, films, pieces of music or artwork that have inspired you as a writer? Let me know in the comments!