Arcade Games

Fantasy Authors Unplugged: Shane Hall on Authors & Video Games

Hello everyone! Today, author Shane Hall is pays a visit to the site with his insight regarding the connection between video games and fiction. Take it away, Shane!

What Can Authors Learn From Video Games? Interactivity and Fiction

You’re wrapped up in a story. You weren’t too sure about where it was going at first, but now you’re hooked. It must have happened somewhere around the two stunning plot twists that make you want to start all over again once you’re done. You’ve been regularly making progress on the story every day, like you are now. But then it’s time to stop. Maybe your lunch break is over, or it’s time to go out shopping, or the bus ride is finished. But you don’t pick up a book marker or close up a binding. Instead, you hit “save”, or tab out from the browser you were using, step away from your desktop, or set your device aside.

Is this the future of enjoying fiction? Well, partly. What has shocked me recently is a discovery, one I made after enjoying a lot of traditional fiction books and a lot of games or interactive stories. That discovery is that these two mediums are not so different. They are linked, in fact, by a particular element that until now has only really been associated with games: interactivity.

Video games are obviously interactive, but how are books and other common formats for storytelling interactive as well, and in what ways could they be made more so? What can an author, who wants to make their readers more engaged, learn from this?

Defining Interactivity

Interactivity is the chief source of differentiation between games and similar media, but when most people hear such a term, they immediately think of two things: input, i.e. controls, and choices. If it doesn’t have clearly marked choices that require the user’s active participation, then it must not be interactive. This leads most people to only imagine non-game interactive fiction as something like a choose-your-own adventure novel. You read a little, you make a choice for how the story proceeds, you move to a place in the story you can only reach by making that choice, and eventually reach an end and go back to try other choices until you’ve read everything.

Digital books have made this sort of thing a lot more user-friendly, using clickable links to snap readers around to different parts of the text instantly. I even experimented with such a project in the past. However, all of that, while great, is not the full meaning of interactivity in fiction.

In reality, interactivity has been a factor of books since their very origin, without blossoming it into some kind of gimmick. A reader must “interact” by opening the book, turning pages, holding the book open, and adding a marker to save their place. Meta-horror works like House of Leaves take this to the extreme, turning a physical book into a kind of puzzle game that has you holding it upside down, comparing statements to margin notes, etc. but it really doesn’t have to be that complicated or detailed.

Conducting The Reader Experience

Now, if you’re an author, ask yourself: what sort of interactivity do you want for certain parts of your story? You could decide, for instance, that an action scene should be more quickly readable, using more white space and concise descriptions so that the reader will be flipping through pages.

How about deep, intense revelations in the plot? Larger paragraphs that overwhelm the reader with the whole truth might be more appropriate. Shifts in word choice and complexity of language could also condition the reader to subtly absorb the meaning or tone of a certain passage. References to other works you’ve written could create a fun cross-book experience where your most passionate readers have reason to return from one book to another.

Looking beyond text, how about the pacing and the way the story is broken up? Ending the last scene of a chapter at the peak of tension and leaving certain things to the imagination is an easy but powerful trick that gets readers interested in continuing the next chapter (not that it should be abused). This is subtly teaching the reader that interacting further, and getting toward the end of a chapter, is a good way of reaching an especially exciting point in the plot.

Visuals are like a rare treat in books, and can have a big impact just based on how they’re used. If you want a picture to be shocking, you could place it on a left page, so it hits people as soon as they turn the page. Conversely, you could place a more mood-setting image on a right-side page. The Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark series is an intense example of this. Images can also contain information that might be missed at first glance, and later revelations in the story can send readers flipping back to the picture’s page to look at it more closely.

The important thing is that just because reading involves the eyes and is controlled by the hands does not mean that it’s synonymous with sitting in front of the TV with a remote in your lap.

If you don’t believe what I’m saying, then consider this: when was the last time a movie or TV show did something that intentionally drove you to control the experience with the remote? The best example I could think of would be visual background gags and other small, easily-missed details, but this sort of thing usually just invites another passive viewing.

The average book is something people take with them to places. People hold books in their hands at all times while using them, and most of all, they’re complete packages. You don’t plug books, or even e-readers, into an expensive piece of equipment, or third party hardware, and there is nothing to tie down the experience.  There is no sitting back and letting a book run while you eat ice cream, so why not take advantage of that? There are even audio-books today made to add narrative engagement to routine physical activities, such as a zombie apocalypse audio-book that integrates the fact that the reader is going for a run.

Just be sure of one thing: whatever you do to make the reader interact on a deeper or more interesting level, have a point to your tactics. This all boils down to looking at your writing, your story, and your objective from the reader’s perspective, and finding a new lens with which to judge your work and seek out improvements.

E-books and The Interactive Appeal

As an example in my own work, one of my major projects, The Veminox Saga, uses interactivity to control how the story is consumed. Veminox is a linear dark fantasy story delivered through a personal email subscription. This makes it a sort of serial to be enjoyed in the same fashion as checking up with the daily newspaper comic. What’s more, the emails only deliver the next entry after the reader has clicked to read the last one, meaning they must interact to continue the story and can also choose not to in order to pause for a little while, never getting overwhelmed with emails they aren’t ready for.

Thanks to modern technology, you can use interactivity to shape how readers experience your work or add a little interesting polish to that experience. But what about more direct, daring approaches, where you actually make an interactive story? This is where things get really intriguing.

The Crossing of Games and Stories

If you’re at all interested in seeing the potential of interactive fiction, all I can say is buckle up, because what’s already been done shows just how much amazing potential is out there. Since this is a massive new world growing out of other mediums and really deserves its own separate discussion, I won’t go too deep into it here.

If you’re at all interested in mild, slow-burning horror or atmospheric fiction, and are not familiar with gaming at all, I’ll leave you with one brief recommendation, a free appetizer: “my father’s long long legs” by Michael Lutz. I think after reading this, anyone can get a sense of what modern technology has gifted to authors with an urge to experiment.

I hope this was eye-opening or interesting to you, and that it informs your writing or reading choices in the near future. I’d like to give a big thank you to P.H. Solomon for letting me be a guest writer!

About the Author

Shane Hall is an author of experimental fantasy and science fiction, with a focus on complex, intense stories told in exciting new ways. His main projects are the Feedback Serial: a series of episodic dystopian novellas set in a world with severe noise limits, as well as Veminox: a free dark fantasy series delivered through email.

Connect with Shane:

Website is http://shanehallauthor.com/

Books by Shane Hall

My first book in my dystopian serial is here https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00YBLK4W8  that one is free, and it’s called Impulse, Episode One of the Feedback Serial.
I also have a one-off flash fiction book for 99 cents for people who don’t want to start a series: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00W2ZBC30  that one’s called Rooted and Four Other Disturbing Stories.
Thanks to Shane for appearing on Fantasy Authors Unplugged with the his post today. Please take a few minutes to look over Shane’s books and connect with him on social media.
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The End of a Game

One of the all-time best video games was Galaga. It was so much of a staple in arcades that you can still find the games in operation at the odd game-room like at a theater. Except now, those consoles have multiple games from which to choose.

The game was a classic space setting in which a player shot all the enemy craft throughout each stage. It was Space Invaders on steroids – no simple march of the invaders in this game. Instead, they took dives at you until they got you or you got them.

One of the tricks to the game was to shoot as many enemy crafts when the entered the screen to start the stage. At higher stages, the enemy fired back or several even pealed off and took a dive at your ship. Here’s a description of the game and it’s history in detail.

One of the best tactics was to have your ship captured by one of the special enemy ships and then rescue your ship. The trick was not to shoot your own ship. However, if you rescued your ship, you had two side-by-side for double the firepower. You could make short work of a stage full of enemy craft with some skillful maneuvering.

Gaining extra ships was a premium to last very long at this game and some settings limited how many extra ships you could get. Bonus rounds also  helped you pad your score and get closer to that all-important extra ship. Good players could flip the score over a million, something I could do during my time playing games in the arcade regularly. It took some real stamina as your hand that pressed the fire button repeatedly would tire so your shooting percentage would eventually suffer. Additionally, while you could fire rapidly there was a short pause after several times of firing shots so percentage was a premium.

I never thought about any of the arcade games actually ending since I’d never seen one played to an end. I certainly never played Galaga that far myself. So just when does a game end? I guess it’s like the old commercial question from the Tootsie-Roll Tootsie-Pops – how many licks does it take to get to the center. Crunch, the world will never know. In the case of the candy it was because you couldn’t resist crunching it open with your teeth. In the case of Galaga, you eventually grow weary and lose that final ship.

One day, I walked into the arcade and plunked down a token on the side-panel to wait to play a game of Galaga. The guy playing muttered that it would be a while. He was well into the game so I figured he was just being a smart-aleck. I watched and waited, then watched more. The guy playing flipped the game once and I was impressed since I didn’t know many people who could, my friends and I being among those. Usually, most people just died well before gaining that score.

Incidentally, when you flipped over a million points, the highest score at that point stuck so if you were at 999,995 points that was it when you ended your game. Someone could technically beat your high score. But, when you flipped the score the number started over at 0 – a bit of a flaw in the program. I suppose the designers never anticipated people rolling the score like that. Or maybe they did…

I kept watching this guy play for a long time and finally picked up my token and retreated to watch from a distance since this guy showed no signs of finishing soon. I chatted with a few friends and even the arcade manager while we watched and shook our heads. Unbelievably, the guy flipped the score a second time to go over 2 million points and he showed no sign of tiring.

Wow!

This guy kept playing until it happened – something he anticipated because he’d been there before that time. After the third time rolling the score to zeroes, he got to the end of the game. Normally the space background scrolls by as you progress, and the enemy comes flying out with each new stage. But the game got to the end and signaled a stage number and the background just scroll by without anymore ships coming out.

The unthinkable had just happened. Someone had literally beaten the game by playing it to the very end. He was done and walked away. We had to get the manager to reboot the game because it wouldn’t do anything else. I do have the answer to that question: how many stages do you have to play to win at Galaga?

251

That’s on regular settings. Other settings of the game allowed for much higher shooting rates and longer play but I tend to prefer the original settings. What’s your take on it?

So that’s the story of the day I watched someone beat an arcade game into submission. Got any incredible game tales or your own? What game could you smash in an arcade?  Check out this link to play it free, but you better have a joystick if you expect to last very long…