Play/Write: What Arcades Teach Us About Story

Play Write

Article by contributor Ryan J. Hodge.

For someone who enjoys a great story, is there anything better than a narrative that engages you from the very start? Imagine a world so rich you can almost smell the scents in the air, a delivery so clever it forces you to think in a way you never thought you would. I’m Ryan J. Hodge, author, and I’d like to talk to you about how playing video games can make you a better writer.

Yes, video games. Those violent, evil, interactive abominations that–at least a while ago–society had seemed to convince itself had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In this article series, I’m going to discuss how Donkey Kong, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and even Candy Crush can change the way we tell stories.

What the arcade teaches us about changing the rules of a story

Now, even those “out-of-touch” with the games industry can appreciate that the boxy, awkward “electronic babysitters” of the 70s and 80s can’t hold a candle to the cutting edge graphics and Hollywood budgets of modern games. Those developing years were just as crucial as the current console generation, as it was in this chaotic time that the most critical aspect of game design was discovered and honed: paradigm shift.

“If it’s so simple, why can’t you beat it?”

What makes us care if Pac-Man escapes the ghosts or if Mario rescues the princess? If someone were to write these stories as-is on paper, they’d probably be pretty dull; just an endless series of munching dots or stomping Goombas. Yet players would remain in front of their screens, transfixed for hours, dumping their (or their parents’) hard earned money into an experience that doesn’t matter, isn’t particularly complicated, and has no real application or parallel in the outside world. From a pure surface level, it makes little sense why the arcade classics took off, and even less in terms of how it can be applied to contemporary narrative.

But there is actually something beneath the surface: a primal appeal to the human psyche that any good story teller would itch to exploit. In traditional sports or board games (as opposed to video games), there are certain rules or logical progressions that have to occur in order for the game to be “fair.” In narratives about such events, the focus is usually around the player’s mastery of self and spirit in order to succeed within the confines of these rules. While sometimes the rule dynamic is changed (due to an antagonist cheating to some degree), the narrative is very rarely centered on learning and mastering the rules themselves.

While a static rule set is also technically true for video games (after all, they have to be beatable), what makes video games unique compared to other modes of play is that the rules themselves are not always communicated to the player from the start, and sometimes new rules are added on the fly. The player investment comes from learning these rules and applying this knowledge to beat the game. That is the paradigm shift.

To be clear: this isn’t relative to basic instruction (i.e. move the joystick in the direction you want to go), I mean the recognition of patterns not explicitly stated anywhere, but that exist all the same. Take Pac-Man, for instance. The only rules explicitly communicated to the player are that he has to move around the maze to collect all the dots while avoiding all the ghosts. What the player isn’t told is that each ghost has a different behavior pattern. The red one will always chase him, the blue one will try to get in front of him, and the orange one moves at random. Playing without this understanding will only get the player so far, but mastery of this concept is crucial to long-term progress.

One could argue AI developed in 1980 could still put 2014’s to shame.

What does this have to do with narrative? Well, I’d like to direct your attention to John W. Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There? (1938), which readers might better recognize from the 1951 and 1982 film adaptations The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s: The Thing respectively. Hailed in many circles as quintessential sci-fi horror, the conceit of this story is that some type of alien intruder has infiltrated an Antarctic research station. It accomplished this infiltration by mimicking the form of a sled dog and, later, members of the research team. Once the intruder has completely copied its target, it appears to be a perfect imitation with complete mastery of language and social nuances (as opposed to, say, a “pod person”). The entire story is the conflict surrounding how to discover and deal with the intruder, which is accomplished by the research team slowly learning about its nature (i.e.: its rules). First they learn that the intruder exists, then that it can copy people as well as dogs, then that every cell of the intruder organism is its own semi-independent life form (meaning that if you chop its head off and burn the body, the head will grow legs and skitter away).

Aww, ain’t it cute?

What separates this story from a distressing amount of horror narratives is that the characters within it never do anything stupid. They never deliberately put themselves in danger (mental breakdowns notwithstanding); instead, they develop a theory about how the organism works and apply protocols commensurate with that theory until a new fact (or “rule”) is revealed. Now, this may seem obvious, but consider how few stories even accomplish that much. Compare Who Goes There? to Prometheus, where so-called scientists must perpetrate nonsensical breaches in basic safety protocols (removing helmets in an alien atmosphere, making kissy faces at a beefy alien cobra analog, etc.) just for the plot to even happen. What was meant to be a thrilling story of danger and discovery becomes an unintentional comedy of errors.

How the hell do you get lost when you made the map!?

Sometimes the lack of effort is more blatant than that; sometimes we see narratives that include some combination of chainsaws and hapless teenagers.

Humans thrive when we have an understanding of things, but all drama is lost when we, the audience, have solved the problem long before the characters in the story. What keeps a story fresh is either changing the established dynamic or a dynamic whose true nature remains elusive.

But far more can be learned about narrative from the supposedly storyless early video games. In addition to themes of obscuring rules, players were also forced to prove their mastery of core gameplay, but in different ways. Consider the Mega Man and Donkey Kong series.

I’m cheating a bit here given that these were console releases and not arcade classics…and you’re just going to have to deal with it.

In these games, players are given a core set of actions with which they must traverse an expansive and diverse level set; however, the two go about this in different fashions. Mega Man demands a mastery of player tools…

…where Donkey Kong demands a mastery of environment.

DK 2

In both games, techniques that were lynchpins of previous levels would not always be useful in the next. Furthermore, players must literally adapt or die in these games, as failing to master the techniques required to pass a level result in the player character’s untimely end. The hook is learning what approach is most useful, and when. As such, the player’s mind and reflexes are sharpened while the game retains its difficulty, no matter how masterful the player is at the controls.

So how do we tie this back to narrative? Well, a sure way to raise dramatic stakes is to place your characters in a situation where everything they’ve learned or applied previously is absolutely no help. One of my personal favorite examples of this is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1951-53). In these stories, Asimov plays with numerous psychological themes as its protagonists are challenged by the fear of the inevitable and the fear of the unknown. In all cases, it is not pure physical superiority that wins the day (in fact, brute strength is the downfall of many of the antagonists) but the mental agility required to solve each unique problem in its own unique way.

It is so easy for writers in any medium to rely on a protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) previously defined attribute to carry a story (not to mention a sorry recipe for gaming). By challenging a protagonist or player to deal with change or to do without, the dynamic of the story itself becomes more interesting.

A swordsman may lose his hand.

Game of Thrones "Walk of Punishment" S3, E3
Game of Thrones “Walk of Punishment” S3, E3

Or a special power can be taken away from the hero.

Legend of Korra "Endgame" S1, E12
Legend of Korra “Endgame” S1, E12

There are plenty of stories that already do this, and if you’d like to sort them from the bevy that don’t, be my guest and happy hunting. However, beyond the dialogue and characters, there exists a core experience that can be distilled not through words, but through action–through play. In order to feel as your protagonists would, think of how they overcome new obstacles; loading up a catalog of arcade classics on your phone or tablet, picking up a DS, or dusting off your kids’ old Nintendo just might provide some valuable insight. And who knows? It just might make you a better writer.

Ryan J. Hodge is a science fiction author and works for Konami Digital Entertainment US. His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook and Paperback.

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Play/Write is owned by Ryan J. Hodge. It was first published on August 8th, 2014 on

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8 thoughts on “Play/Write: What Arcades Teach Us About Story

  1. I agree and I think video games can gives us unique experiences not available in other formats. (Walking Dead, the “Survive” misson in Halo ODST, Asura’s Wrath, No Russian, etc)

  2. Very interesting how older video games have such simple stories, but they’re so compelling. With something like Robotron 2084, you don’t think exactly about the story, but if you can imagine yourself in the position of the world of the character, the simplicity of everything is still compelling.

  3. This was an excellent read trough and trough. The premise for the article is great and original, the explanation of said premise is elaborate enough to be engrossing, but not too long as to be hard to read, and it uses excellent examples and images to illustrate the points being made. Brave Mr. Hodge! really looking forward to read more from you! ^^

    If I may be allowed a small nitpick though, I’d like to point out that using that scene from Legend of Korra is perhaps not the best example… As said potential rule change (Korra losing her powers) is magically reverted within the same episode, and was never really explored to it’s full potential, at least, not back then. To the show’s credit, that rule change happened again in this last season, and it seems like it WILL matter in the long term this time around. Though just for how long remains to be seen.

  4. Sorry for just getting around to reading this now. Great article though! I learned something that was explained very well and might prove useful in the future (now I’m just starting to sound like a spambot). Not that I’m any kind of storyteller, but I’m starting to appreciate more and more what makes a story interesting.

    A big percentage of games today have the player controlling someone born to do the job so I feel like there is still a lot to explore regarding your last point in the article. The Walking Dead and Amnesia: Dark Descent were really good at taking away the usual powers known to the player in the genre (time to decide on an answer in Walking Dead, a weapon, the ability to see your enemies and surroundings, or even the ability to run away, as sometimes, in Amnesia, you’d need to plan ahead and know your surroundings or devise an escape plan to have a chance of tricking an enemy). Those are great examples of playing with a character that is not totally “fit” for the situation and that resulting in more exciting gameplay.

    So I guess my point is… That those 2 games are good examples of that. Yeah, just that 😛

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