Author Archives: Gregory D. Little

When Did The Sun Come Up? Immersion in Video Games

Immersion. It’s that feeling of being completely swept away in a story, so much so that you forget the real world exists outside it. As I’ve gotten older that sensation has gotten harder to find. Maybe after years of writing my brain is too accustomed to dissecting what I read. Whatever the reason, when I do manage to lose myself in a story, it’s the best kind of treat.

One thing’s for sure. When it comes to immersion, video games have a distinct short-cut that books lack. When you read a novel, you passively watch events unfold. The best books make you feel as though you live these events through the eyes of the character. But however immersive a book is, you will always be the passive observer, unable to influence the events unfolding before you. What I’m going to talk about in this post is how we can leverage video games’ greatest cheat—interactivity—into making our own writing the kind that sweeps the reader away.

A video game is like a story where the reader instead of the writer is in charge… at least to a limited extent. In a book you place your faith in the author, but when gaming it’s your responsibility to see that the hero survives to reach the next scene. For somewhere between eight and 120 hours (curse your vastness, Skyrim!) you are the driving force behind whether the hero succeeds or fails. Even with the most clichéd of plots and characters made of pure cardboard, this sense of agency is a video game’s greatest weapon in capturing and holding interest. I’m going to examine two games that go about this in very different ways, examine how we might use those techniques to further our own writing, then offer a brief warning.

I completed Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us just about a week ago so this seems as good a time as any to gush all over it. If ever there was a video game contender to submit as “serious art” this game is it (Honorable Mention goes to L.A. Noire). At a glance nothing seems particularly remarkable about the game or its story. The Last of Us is essentially a zombie survival horror game, where society has collapsed thanks to an infectious outbreak that “zombifies” normal people. A hard-bitten survivor named Joel must escort a fourteen year old girl named Ellie to safety through areas teeming with both infected and with equally hard-bitten human survivors. About the only thing original the premise does have going is that the infectious agent is fungal in nature and its mind-warping abilities are based on a real class of fungus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordyceps (warning: nightmare fuel).

Despite a fairly pedestrian premise, the characters of Joel and Ellie are so well written, acted and animated that it elevates the entire game to something sublime. Combat is merciless, usually punishing any mistakes with instant death. Playing as both characters alternatingly, you will feel every hurt they incur and their mounting sense of despair. When you (as Joel) brutally kill a man who is attacking Ellie, you’ll feel a savage glee that is entirely intentional yet profoundly unsettling. The sense of a world falling apart around Joel and Ellie is palpable throughout the game, and though I won’t spoil events, the plot is driven believably and courageously by its characters and delivers an ending that will positively haunt you.

But how do we recreate this in writing form without video game short-cuts? As in the game, it starts with character. While a reader can’t direct the actions of your characters, if you delve deep into the mind state of your viewpoint characters and ensure that the actions of the character are so well-grounded that they feel almost inevitable, you can transport the reader into the mind of that character fully. Make the reader understand and believe in the actions of the character and you will reel them in.

In stark contrast to the total character immersion of The Last of Us we have the total world immersion of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. An open world fantasy role playing game, Skyrim has no structured plot per se, only a series of quests that you unlock by exploring the vast world of the game. There are two sets of “main” plot quests, but they (and all the rest of the quests) are entirely optional. Accomplishing some quests will make others unavailable, as everything is interconnected. I still remember when my character was offered a chance to join the Dark Brotherhood (guild of assassins) and had to choose between several people to assassinate to complete my initiation. Instead I turned on my Brotherhood contact and after dispatching them, I got a message that several quests were permanently failed. But then a new message flashed up on the screen: “NEW QUEST: DESTROY THE DARK BROTHERHOOD.” Niiiiiice.

This is an entirely different level of immersion, a game and a story where you literally have input into everything. But I’m not advocating we all start writing Choose Your Own Adventure novels, because you can still get this sense of total world immersion in a book with a fixed plot. The key is in the worldbuilding. Robert Jordan’s early Wheel of Time books did an outstanding job of building a working magic system where you could see exactly how the pieces fit together. He established the rules early on, then later when he had characters figure out how to bend the rules to achieve greater ends, it all felt very natural, like another set of laws for physics. If you focus on constructing your world so that all the pieces fit and move together in ways that the reader can see and appreciate, you can achieve something similar.

So we’ve gone over immersion by character and immersion by worldbuilding. And now, the promised warning: with great immersion comes great expectations and therefore great responsibility. The more a player (or reader) feels they have a stake in a particular story, the more they start to dictate in their mind how that story “should” end. With enough readers or players, there’s going to be a pretty large divergence in expectations. I’m sure everyone has their own example, but it’s worth remember that the more investment the person has put into the story, the greater the anger if they feel the writer doesn’t stick the landing. And if you have enough readers, you won’t be able to please everyone.

Of course, I suspect that for most of us, that’s a problem we’d relish having.

Beyond All Comprehension

Mothman Prophecies Poster
Mothman Prophecies Poster

It’s not often in movies that we are presented with a truly alien force. In this case, when I say “alien” I mean more H.P. Lovecraft than Mr. Spock. It makes sense. We like to recognize the motivations of the characters we are watching onscreen. Writing characters no one can relate to is one of the basic no-nos of Writing 101. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when a film elects to do so anyway, it risks underperforming at the box office.

At 53% on Rotten Tomatoes and having earned just $32 million domestically (barely breaking even on its budget), The Mothman Prophecies is the very definition of an unremarkable film, critically and commercially speaking. But it’s an underrated gem in my opinion. While not perfect, there is one thing the film does fantastically well: present viewers with a truly alien entity while drenching every minute of screen time in unrelenting creepiness.

The film is loosely based on an urban legend. Mothman is a legend local to the Point Pleasant area of rural West Virginia. Described as a man-sized flying creature with glowing red eyes, it was sighted frequently in the Point Pleasant region from November 1966 to December 1967. It’s been variously described as an alien, a cryptid, or some sort of supernatural entity. Accounts of sightings vary, but many involve descriptions of precognitive visions of upcoming disasters, and this is where the movie devotes a great deal of its focus.

The film begins with domestic bliss quickly shattered. While driving home from purchasing their dream house in Washington, D.C., John Klein (Richard Gere) and his wife Mary (Debra Messing) are in a car accident. Mary catches a glimpse of a red-eyed something flying toward their car at high speed. She swerves to avoid this apparition and injures her head in the wreck.

Tragedy follows, yet it’s not Mary’s head injury which kills her; she wakes up concussed but otherwise unharmed. But her glimpse of the Mothman apparition has opened her mind in some way. She wakes certain something is deeply wrong inside her. An MRI reveals the truth, an aggressive brain tumor that has been growing for some time. A tumor the Kleins would never have discovered had it not been for the accident and the entity that caused it.

The remainder of the film documents John’s increasing obsession with these entities that foresaw his wife’s death and their seeming obsession with the town and people of Point Pleasant. A simple enough premise, in fact it’s arguably pretty thin on plot. What kept me gripped was the overridingly creepy tone and atmosphere. I’ve thought a lot about the film and its secret–and a good lesson for anyone trying to recreate the same sensation in their writing–is that it keeps the viewer constantly off balance. The viewer keeps desperately searching for some set of rules these creatures operate by, but the movie throws nothing but curve balls. It’s a dangerous technique, as it can give the impression that the writer is simply making up rules as he goes, but handled properly, it creates the impression that a mere mortal writer can conjure up something that is outside human comprehension. It’s an illusion, of course, but a potent one. Below are just some of the examples of this from the film.

John sets out to drive to Richmond, VA from Washington, D.C. only to arrive at Point Pleasant in the middle of the night. He has no recollection of how he got there, not to mention how he traveled an impossible distance in a mere three hours.

The entities speak to a friend of John’s from the drain of a sink. “In a place this size, equator, three hundred will die,” they prophesy. And they are correct.

A creature calling itself Indrid Cold calls John late one night and begins reciting facts about his life to him while John records its answers. “Did you read my mind?” John finally asks.

“I have no need to,” it responds. John later discovers that this was no true voice, but some kind of electrical impulse operating outside the range of human vocal cords.

And at a bar one day, a nicely printed business card is delivered to John. It reads:

Georgetown.

Friday.

Noon.

Mary will call.

At this point in the movie, Mary has been dead for two years. Yet we the viewers have seen Mary, or something that looks like Mary, stalking John from the edges of the frame, even though John himself has not. And in Georgetown, on Friday, at noon, John’s phone begins to ring…

If you love being creeped out by a story as much as I do, this stuff is gold. The film depicts John’s downward spiral into obsession with chilling verisimilitude. Desperate for answers, he eventually tracks down another “survivor” of these creatures, Dr. Alexander Leek (Alan Bates). But the entities are so alien that Dr. Leek has little in the way of explanation. John is forced to confront the notion that his questions may have no answers, at least none that he can comprehend.

“I think we can assume that these entities are more advanced than us. Why don’t they just come right out and tell us what’s on their minds?” John asks.

“You’re more advanced than a cockroach,” Leek replies. “Have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?”

Of course, what John really wants to know is: why him? Dr. Leek’s answer is my favorite line of the movie. “You noticed them. And they noticed that you noticed them.” Gives me chills every time.

The Take Home: When things start making sense, they stop being scary. A lack of answers is unsatisfying to us by its very nature, but handled properly, it can create the illusion of a mystery that’s beyond our comprehension. It’s a chilling tool to include in your writing toolbox.