On the Potential of Games to Create Narratives and Their Lessons For Writers

I’ve mentioned once before, in my “Why I Write” essay, that gaming got me started scribing things. Well, I hope today I might be able to show you why it worked as it did. I’ll preface this by saying that it’s an unfortunate coincidence I was playing as Germany during the events of this story, and I did not intend this as some kind of reflection on reality. Given the current situation, let’s just be thankful I wasn’t playing as America.

***

Beneath a cluster of hills to the north of Magdeburg there rests a near-forgotten compound.

In the mildewed depths of an ancient concrete pit, a handful of tired people sit at new, shiny computers. The floor beneath their feet is stained with over a century of grime and old coffee spills. The pit has its own private rat colony skittering from catwalk to catwalk. The staff have two jobs: to keep the rats from chewing through wiring, and to wait for a signal that never comes. In introspective moments, their boss (a full Colonel) will walk from one silo to the next and stare at the block-letter names on the ancient weapons. “Grosser Gottfied,” “Dicker Hans,” “Teufelkind.” For a century, these missiles have been guarded against rust, wear and short-circuits for the sole purpose that a new generation of keepers may repeat the cycle without hiccup. In the whole world they are both first and last of their kind.

Perhaps they are not so much weapons as symbols.

Germany has not known a major war in recorded history. A brief struggle against France ended when a fleet of German cruisers bombarded Calais into submission and mechanized infantry seized the city. Aside from a skirmish between German helicopters and a woefully outdated French army (still carrying flintlock rifles), there was no direct combat. The Empire has not truly been threatened since the Scythian invasions three millennia ago, a time known only by ancient spears and old horseshoes on the plains and in the hills around this very silo.

The nukes are not even symbols. They merely occupy space.

“Oberkommando Sud withdraws 2nd Army Group south of Hong Kong,” a tired blond woman intones. She swipes the screen of her phone. “Thought they just broke through a couple weeks ago.”
“The Sumies are throwing everything into that pocket,” says another. “Business as usual. America starts the war, we do the fighting.”
“It’s not a war, Hinrich, it’s a “containment of aggression.” Totally different.”
“Ja, well, why are we the ones doing the aggressing?”

The boss says nothing. A part of him knows it’s coming. He places his gold-rimmed glasses on his old eagle’s nose and clasps his hands. Perhaps the retreat is pure tactics.

From the communications computer rings a single chime. “Ah,” the blond mutters, “Check-in time already?”
“It’s 1:13,” the Colonel says. “Check-in isn’t ’til 5.”
“Herr Oberst, you can’t think-” The words stop. “Oh.”
In silence they print the readouts. Without pause or sound he reads the coordinates. “Target one,” he orders, “Dicker Hans, Kish.” Kish marks the ancient boundary of Sumeria before Hong Kong’s capture. It’s small as cities go, but historic. It’s also the only direct route from the Sumerian heartland to the front lines at Hong Kong.
“Blast yield?”
“Maximum.” Dicker Hans is the oldest missile, carrying a weak fission warhead of 75 kilotons. Enough to level the city and its defenses, but not to close the region. Goosebumps break out and no one is surprised when the Colonel says, “Second target. Grosser Gottfied, Hong Kong.” Gottfied carries a proper fusion warhead. Again, the Colonel orders maximum yield: 10 megatons. Hong Kong is a large city surrounded by five Sumerian armies–almost Sumeria’s entire military–and more troublingly bordering Germany’s ancient ally, Russia.
“Third target,” the Colonel dictates. He pauses; a frown’s wraith plays along his brow, slips to his lips, and vanishes. “Teufelkind, Uruk.” Uruk. Capital of Sumeria, second most populous city on the planet after Paris. Teufelkind carries a 21-megaton payload.

The coordinates are entered after a quick double-check with Germany’s satellite grid. The Colonel picks up an ancient telephone, dusts off the receiver, and dials the number 1. “Kaiser,” he says. “This is Oberst Wernke. We require your authorization to launch.” He waits, then says only, “Understood” and hangs up. He gives the staff a single nod.

***

If you’re a gamer, you’ve guessed already that I’m feeding you a narrative pulled straight from a game of Civilization 6 (Sumeria still being a country in the nuclear age is a dead giveaway there). If you’re not, then it’s actually you that I’m targeting with this post. I could keep writing, of course; the story doesn’t come close to ending with the launches. The Hong Kong pocket is annihilated, searing away all but one of Sumeria’s units and making ash of a full German army, unable to withdraw to safe distance in time.

All three cities become radioactive wastelands and fall to German troops as soon as the land heals. Columns of tanks and APCs marked with the Iron Cross pour southwards by road and airlift in tandem with an armada from the shipyards of Frankfurt, Berlin and Cologne. After a few years of fighting, Sumeria becomes just a band of territory in the German empire, and Germany’s ageless ruler, Barbarossa, turns his gaze to the small, technologically crippled kingdom of Britain and the large but even more backwards empire of Arabia.

But of course, at a certain point it becomes cheap to let the game write for me. For that matter, at a certain point it becomes unreasonably difficult for me to explain the impact of the game in a purely narrative form, since not everything that happened would fit in that narrative. When I first completed the nuclear program research, I thought, “Might as well have one in case I need it.” The same logic led to the fusion warheads once I completed the prerequisites for those.

And then turn by turn I moved on, until by the time the war with Sumeria broke out I’d forgotten warheads and silos all. I remain unclear whether Teddy Roosevelt or Gilgamesh started the mess, but my own territory was adjacent to Sumeria and America’s wasn’t. A mutual defensive pact between myself and Teddy took care of the rest.

The truth is, though, I didn’t launch the missiles because I needed them. I launched them out of annoyance. Having broken the initial Sumerian defense of two mechanized infantry armies and driven their artillery back to the city itself, I was irritated to see three more Sumerian armies moving in. Not desperate, not pissed off. Just a little miffed. Clicking back to my own main territory in the north (my forces were concentrated in a small, cutoff territory taken in a war with Arabia decades earlier), I saw two mushroom cloud icons over that silo near Magdeburg, built hours ago in real time but feeling every bit its in-game age to my eyes.

And then, laughing with genuine maniacal glee, I ordered the launches. I was only slightly deterred by the oddly grounded, “Authorize the launch?” popups.

It wasn’t until I moved armies into the cities and saw a sickly layer of glowing green hanging over scorched farms and shattered roads that I thought about what I’d done. In that instant, I felt like a monster. But I was a monster with a war to fight, so I didn’t dwell on it.

Gaming has, for now, a monopoly on these kinds of moments. The mix of alternate reality and personal agency in a video game creates narratives that are at once incredibly personal and wholly unexpected. In a strange way, it feels far more like making history than reliving actual history. Games like Civilization and Total War are at their strongest when these stories arise from seemingly random variables at work.

At least for me, the scripted scenarios that come with these games fall oddly flat even though they’re usually based on real events. Yes, those events really happened, but what made them significant in the moment is that there was no guarantee they’d shake out as they did. Once you’ve got a map designer and AI coders and voice actors all working together to replicate them, they lose their tension. The script has to follow history at least somewhat. It can only surprise you so much.

There are hundreds of little moments scattered through the match I’m referring to, and there may be more yet since I haven’t finished. Whatever happens will hit harder because there’s no preset outcome. Sometimes that’s clearly visible, and sometimes it’s not, but knowing that makes a lot of difference.

All the last-second tank kills and long-range headshots, the freak critical hits and somehow-unseen stealthy dashes of gaming draw their power from the dozens of times (sometimes unsung, often loudly cursed about), when the tank runs you over, when the other sniper judges the drop better, when the dice give you snake eyes, when that guard suddenly looks left after looking right the last hundred fucking times. They also force me to type run-on sentences, but that’s not here nor there.

Writers can learn a lot from this. First off, the value of a properly connected narrative for building themes. Within this example alone, we’ve got abuse of power, the arbitrary nature of war and politics, the crooked sweep of history, and a bunch of other excellent talking points for an underworked English professor.

More importantly, though, this should serve as another example of just how crucial it is that you avoid contrivance. This narrative carried the force it did (at least for me) because I didn’t feel it was a narrative. Obviously, that’s because it wasn’t, but as a writer you can’t fall back on that. You’ll never really immerse your readers to the point that they forget they’re reading something, but that’s not truly the goal. What you want them to feel is that even though they’re reading a work of fiction, it’s like reading a memoir or a biography.

You want to make the narrative convincing even when the events it depicts are ludicrous. I can’t tell you precisely how to do that because in no small part what you’re aiming for is a feeling. This is a difficult concept even for me, but there’s a certain feel to things that have truly happened. I’ll call it “existential authority” for lack of a better phrase. That realness thwarts any attempt to sidestep the event if you can convey it. When writing fiction, then, what you want is to convey that realness even when it’s not there.

I believe I’ve said before that while a lot of writing is mechanics, some of the most important work has to be done by feel. That’s never more true than it is in this case. By definition, you can’t really make your story change and adapt to the reader if it’s on the page. It couldn’t be more scripted if it was an actual play. What you can do is recapture the feeling of emergence. As you learn the ins and outs of a game, you begin to see its patterns and eventually the illusion can collapse.

But in the meantime, let it be a thought exercise. Think how the events onscreen would sound as a historical documentary, or look in a war drama, or, naturally, read in the pages of a novel. Over time, your brain will learn to isolate that feeling. I don’t promise you’ll always capture it on the page, but sometimes you will. That sometimes is enough. Get it across to your readers, and there’s no scene too absurd to carry weight.

Maybe skip the whole, “Nuking the second most populous city on the planet,” part. That might be a bit much.

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