Eddy Rivas: Bad Writing Habits I Learned From Video Games (Plus A Few Good Ones, Too)
Eddy Rivas is one of the writers behind Red Vs. Blue, and it seems only appropriate that he’s here to talk about writing habits both good and bad he got from video games.
Bad: Tutorial Levels
You’ve just started a new game. You’re a zombie monkey slaying space marine with biceps that border on cancerous. It’s time to start teaching those undead monkeys who’s boss in this galaxy, but first, you’re going to have to listen to a technician teach you how to look up. And then down. And then maybe around in a circle for good measure (sometimes those biceps mess with your muscle memory).
The technician explains a bunch of Shit You Already Know about the world you’re about to lay to waste with amazing futuristic weaponry fine-tuned for ultimate zombie monkey destruction. You humor the kid because the game just started and you’re still not sure which button you should press to sprint headlong into adrenaline-fueled heroism.
This learning and teaching phase is somewhat necessary to orient a player with the mechanics of a game world, but makes your writing more hopelessly stuck than a beached whale who just ate its own weight in donuts. One of the things I have to ask myself when laying down info in the first chapter of a new project: does the reader absolutely need to know this information for the story to make sense at this moment?
Often, because I try to be clever, the biggest offender of this is dialogue between two characters that no sane person would actually utter in day-to-day conversation, like:
“Joe. You’re my brother-in-law and my partner in zombie monkey slaying. We went through training together at monkey slaying academy.”
I’m pretty sure Joe would look at you as if you were having a stroke, before wondering if maybe you’ve got the zombie monkey sickness. If it feels like it belongs in a videogame tutorial, it’s probably best to tuck away for future use.
We all skip those levels anyway.
Bad: Vanilla Character Builds
Because I’m a coward whose favorite type of ice cream is vanilla, I tend to play it safe when it comes time to build my characters in RPGs. This is most troublesome when assigning attribution points. Afraid to miss out on any particular stat (what if I need my intelligence high later on for the testicle-burning spell that I’ll probably never use because it requires too many skill points), I create a character more boring than AAA video games’ brown-haired white guy.
Unfortunately, this middle-of-the-road attribute character creeps into my writing as well. There have been times when I’m reading over my first drafts and have to ask the painful question: “why else should I root for this guy, besides the fact that he’s who we meet on page one?” I don’t always have an answer.
A good friend of mine just started Fallout 4 with a character who has max luck and max intelligence, and basically zero of every other stat. I’d be too terrified to play through the game that way, but it certainly is an interesting approach to creating a memorable character. What if we thought about our own characters in that way, maximizing particular traits to the derailment of every other part of their lives? We might end up with more Miriam Blacks, a true force of nature who tornados her way through each of her books from start to finish.
This is also one of the things I love about Red vs. Blue, the longest running show on the Internet (you’ll have to forgive my fanboy-ing, I literally wrote the book on it). The show’s characters basically have one trait maxed to 111, with all other traits somewhere in the negative threshold. It makes each character memorable and easily identifiable (the brightly colored armor helps, too), and is no doubt a huge contributing factor to why the show has outlasted so many others of its kind, and why it’s attracted an audience that rivals some of cable’s biggest shows.
Bad: Follow the Waypoint
“Master Zombie Monkey Killer, we need you to run over to Bullshit Canyon to take care of a generic problem because of Reasons. Clear out as many of those zombie monkeys as you can, and may God have mercy on your soul when you find out the secret twist that this is all leading to.”
In videogames, it’s usually pretty critical to have a destination marker of some kind (unless you’re in a Call of Duty, which is basically a long hallway disguised as a videogame, filled with explosions and bad guys). Much of the design of every space is meant to subtly (or not-so-subtly) push you forward, telling you where to be and when to trigger the next event.
I tend to treat my characters the same way.
While I’m a huge fan of outlines, one of the trappings of mapping everything out beforehand is that you start treating story beats like videogame waypoints. “Go here,” you tell the main character. “Learn this startling revelation.” “Join in on this rising action, fool.” “Get all up on that denouement.” But stories need to be more organic than that.
Trust me, I get it – we want to be sure we know where the story is heading at all times, so we can make it easier on ourselves. But what I usually find is the sections that are working the least are the ones that I plopped into the middle of the story from a very early stage, completely unwilling to budge on its inclusion. I created a waypoint, and I told the main character to get there because of Reasons.
Good: Co-Op Makes Everything Better
My regular Destiny fireteam bros hates me, because I refuse to do any mission by myself. I’m the needy guardian, constantly pestering people to join me to run through the new daily, even if it’s something that I’m totally capable of doing on my own.
What can I say, I love a good co-op experience.
In the same way that certain games become exponentially more fun the more humans you add to your play session (Borderlands comes to mind), our stories become instantaneously infused with tension and fire when we pair our heroes up with someone else – and the more conflicting their ideologies or goals, the better.
It might make sense to travel alone through a wasteland in a videogame, but our characters need other humans to butt heads with. They need someone else standing on the other side of the central conflict, or someone who sees the central conflict in a different way than they do, to really throw some lighter fluid into every scene. I can’t tell you how many of my early drafts put my main character traveling from point A to point B by herself, mulling over what happened in the previous chapter or wondering what’s going to happen in the chapter that follows. I’m usually left wondering who I can put in her path that might really piss her off her ruin her day even further.
So really it’s not that much different from playing co-op games at all.
Good: The Steady Build
The best videogames, like the best stories, meticulously build on themselves until the final chapters. What a good game does in the background is teach you how to play and defeat its next challenge, drip-feeding you new mechanics and variations to the ones you thought you’d previously mastered.
Nowhere is this displayed better than in the Portal games, which are basically tutorials for how to play the Portal games. By the end of each game, there is a zen like moment in the final chapters where you are using every jumping, portal-ing, twisting, momentum-gaining trick in the book to make you feel like the ultimate badass. It’s a steady, methodical build that gets you there, but one that pays off because the game is delivering on what it promised from the very start.
The best writing does this as well. It’s more than foreshadowing, and more than simply paying off a plot twist that was so subtly hinted back on page 2. The best stories build on themselves, creating a feedback loop of character motivation, central conflict and overarching theme that’ll eventually blow the speakers and send you careening through the air like Marty McFly. There’s a similar Portal-like zen moment that happens when you’re in the middle of a book that has also pulled this off, and there’s honestly nothing else quite so satisfying.
So the next time you boot up Zombie Monkey Killer, pay attention to how you’re being guided to the next zombie monkey to annihilate, what you’re learning to do and what comes next. Now turn that same attentive eye to your story.
You might just learn a thing or two about your own writing – for better or worse.
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Eddy Rivas is a writer from Houston, Texas and the author of Red vs. Blue: The Ultimate Fan Guide, after being a fan of the show for more than a decade. A copywriter by trade, he moonlights as a writer for a number of web productions. His contributions to online video include Rooster Teeth’s Red vs. Blue, X-Ray & Vav and Day 5, as well as Web Zeroes, Revision 3’s first scripted sitcom, which he also starred in. When he’s not at work, playing video games or training in Krav Maga, Eddy writes for The Know, a popular gaming news show on YouTube.