Computer Games, or Why I’ll Probably Never Finish Writing My Trilogy

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

I have a healthy obsession with computer gaming, and I call it “healthy” because if I admitted that I get entirely too little sleep or sometimes forget to eat because I get so sucked into the world of a game…well, I’d have to stop if I admitted that. So no, my love of games is nothing but healthy, thank you.

Some of my earliest memories are of perching like a big-eyed owl and watching someone else play video or computer games. My dad bought “me” a Sega and the ridiculously challenging Lion King game to go with it, so I spent a lot of my formative years watching him stubbornly keep playing and dying. I had a cousin who would play Rollercoaster Tycoon for hours on end, and I’d be right there at his elbow, watching him build epic monstrosities and offering breathless suggestions that got ignored half the time. My mom was a big fan of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, and I’d pester her into playing just so I could sit there and watch the world and the story unfold. It always felt a little like watching a movie to me—a much longer, more interactive movie, but still a pretty passive experience.

And then there was one day, in the middle of a Morrowind session, that my mom had to leave for just a few minutes. She was stuck in a boring, plot-advancing conversation, and told me to take over. It felt a little like trespassing, moving from my stool into the real computer chair, and I was half convinced I’d break the whole game as soon as I touched the mouse…but I chose a dialogue option. And another. And another. And then I went off on a quest to kill some stuff, and without even knowing it I was playing the game. And I was hooked.

That obsession has never gone away; it’s just that now I don’t have to pester people to let me watch them game. Instead of feeling like I’m just watching a long movie, I can now feel like I’m intimately involved in an authentic, detailed story.

Really, the story is what it comes down to. My favorite kinds of games are role-playing games (RPGs) like the Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age series. Both franchises are pretty spectacular for a lot of reasons, but the biggest factor for me has always been the storytelling. In The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, your character is at the center of big, world-changing events, an epic plotline that makes me, as a storyteller, very jealous. Yet it’s ridiculously easy to play the game for days on end without doing a single thing to advance the main plot, because there’s just so much you can do. The world of Skyrim is rich and full of realism, because in real life the path to any specific goal usually isn’t a straight line, and lots of things happen along the way to send you on detours. Sometimes, even though you know there’s a kingdom that needs saving, it’s more fun to go poke giants with sticks.

It’s this sort of choose-your-own-adventure aspect that I love so much about games. With a book, you can have a world that’s just as rich and realistic, but there’s still only one outcome, one path to the end-point: whatever the author chose to write. There’s no way to step off-track, to go poke giants or chase butterflies or inspect that weird creepy hut you passed by the other day. Like a lot of early computer games, you’re locked into one track, one outcome. But with an open-world game like Skyrim, the sky is literally the limit, especially considering the dragon-riding feature. You can be any kind of character you want, and have a real impact on the world and the story with the choices you make. That kingdom you didn’t save because you were busy poking giants? Turns out the king had a relic that would’ve helped you save the world and now it’s gone along with the kingdom. The game has changed, because of one seemingly meaningless choice.

Books give you a single path through a manufactured world. The best games, the games that grab me and won’t let go, give you a manufactured world and let you discover your own path.

RPGs have the same sort of escapist appeal for me that reading does—a way to get drawn into another world and discover everything that makes it unique. But they’re just one of the two types of games that completely sap all my willpower to walk away from the computer.

There are also logic or puzzle games, which is a pretty broad genre that can cover everything from Tetris to hidden object games to room escape games and everything in between. These sorts of games occupy an entirely different section of my brain, and I get something entirely different out of them: rather than immersing myself in a new character and new world like in an RPG, for puzzle games I tend to completely ignore any plot that gets tacked onto the game—these plots tend to feel pretty predictable and flat, and honestly I don’t care why I need to escape the room, or why I need to save my long-lost great uncle from his archeology expedition. That doesn’t matter. I know the mechanics of the game already, and that’s the fun part.

I would be just fine with a game full of puzzles, devoid of any context…which is why I was so happy to find The Witness recently, because it’s exactly that. You wake up on an island and wander around solving puzzles. That’s it. It’s wonderful. I’m sure the ending is building towards a bit of plot or an explanation, but I’m not sure yet (I’m forcing myself not to play any more of it, because with all my deadlines I can’t afford to be sucked into the wonderful little game any more than I already am). Honestly, I won’t care whether or not I ever find out why I was on the island, or who built so many puzzles for me. The fun is in the puzzles themselves.

Puzzle-type games make me think, make me use the parts of my brain that don’t always get used in my day-to-day desk-job life. There’s nothing quite like the rush of figuring out a puzzle I’ve been poking at for hours, and it’s a much different rush than virtually riding a dragon. Both awesome, but in different ways.

These days, I try really hard not to pay attention to new or upcoming games. I have a to-be-played list just as long as my to-be-read list, and I have too hard a time walking away from a game once it’s pulled me in (I wasn’t kidding about that forgetting-to-eat thing). I carefully budget my time so that my real life and my gaming life can coexist peacefully…and if that ever actually happens, I’ll let you know. Until then, I’ll be the one with sleepy eyes and carpal tunnel.

shadow-godsRachel Dunne is the author of In the Shadow of the Gods, the first book of a new dark fantasy series, available June 21st from Harper Voyager. She is an avid gamer, reader, and nerd, and doesn’t have enough time in the day for all her introverted activities. She lives in the Midwest with her great beast of a dog, Goliath.


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