Friday, August 6, 2021

The Page is Not The Game


The video game is the defining entertainment medium of the times. Combining high-impact visuals, immersive sound and deep player engagement, all within the comfort of the player's home, the video game is the epitome of technological leisure. Its influence bleeds out into other media. In writing, we see this in the immensely popular LitRPG / gamelit genre: stories that incorporate video game tropes and mechanics.

But as described in my previous post, The Page is Not The Screen, the page is not the game. A prose story is not a video game. In this post, we will take a deep dive into the differences between a prose story and a video game, and why a writer must demarcate these media.

Stat Blocks, Stats Block

The defining trope of the LitRPG / Gamelit genre is the stat sheet.

Stats draw their origins from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. Stats quantify what is otherwise abstract: health, strength, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, etc. Quantification allows dungeon masters to resolve combat encounters and players to determine the best strategy to tackle the tactical problem before them.

In the tradition of TTRPGs, video game RPGs use stats to show a character's abilities. Even in non-RPG games, everything has a stat. In an FPS or TPS, every character has health and/or armor value, and the goal is to deplete health to zero before he does the same to you. More sophisticated games track critical decisions, skills, relationships, and more. Stats allow the game to resolve combat encounters and other checks—whether it is visible to the player or not.

In early CRPGs, combat was only slightly more concrete than TTRPGs. You get an animation of a character running up to his opposite number, playing a genetic attack animation, and retreating. Or a character casting a spell, or using an item, or other such action. Thanks to software limitations then, there is just enough sound and movement to signal the technique the character employs. Today's video games and hardware allow for more fluid and complete animations, allowing the player to see the entire technique from start to finish. Nonetheless, the legacy of the stats remain.

Stats provide a repeatable yet abstract way of resolving combat. By crunching numbers, the skilled player can develop clearly-defined strategies to take down enemies. Once the strategy is set and tested, he can replicate the strategy every time he finds himself in a similar situation, allowing him to farm mobs for loot or blaze through quests and random encounters.

The world outside games is neither repeatable nor abstract, nor can you grind your way through an army of constantly-respawning monsters in the hopes of obtaining rare treasure. Within a story, there is nothing abstract to quantify. A character shows his traits through his words and deeds, not his stats.

Stat blocks in prose don't benefit the reader. Only hardcore gamers care about stats, because stats influence how they play the game. A character's stats reveal his strengths and weaknesses, and with that how the character should be played (or played against).

A game is played. A novel is read. The reader is not playing a game while he is reading a LitRPG novel. What use is a stat block? Unlike a gamer, it has no impact on how the reader engages the story.

The highest and best purpose of a stat block is simply a convenient shorthand to show character progress. Instead of showing ever-escalating feats, or having characters remark on newfound strengths, writers simply produce a convenient stat block to tell the reader how far the character has progressed.

There are many times when showing is more appropriate than telling, and this is one of them. Stats are meaningless without context. Stating that a character increased his strength by 100 points while another increased his by just 1 point tells me nothing. The former character may inhabit a world where characters have strength points in the thousands or tens of thousands, making a mere 100 point increase chicken feed. The latter, on the other hand, may live in a world where 20 is the point cap and he's just hit 19.

More than just stat limits and raw numbers, show the reader what it means to have a stat of 100 or 20 or whatever. Only then will stats hold meaning.

Calling Out Callouts

Callouts are critical in CRPGs. In a novel, callouts are intolerable.

'X has received Y damage!', 'X has been afflicted with status Y', damage numbers popping up, and other such video game callouts don't belong on the page. In-game messages like these feed the player the information he needs to adapt to a situation. Callouts guide players, giving them immediate feedback on whether their attacks and strategies are working. The callout appears instantly, lingers just long enough to be read, and disappears quickly. Being part of a visual user interface, the brain processes the callouts in eyeblinks, and the callouts disappear as soon as the information is communicated.

On the page, every word on the callout has to be read individually, and the words stay long after the relevant information is communicated. A callout dramatically slows down the action, especially if written in the passive voice, and especially if every single blow is called out.

Readers don't need hard numbers. They're not playing a game. They're reading a story. Numbers detract from the scene and slow down the action. It is better to simply show characters being severely injured or otherwise experiencing status afflictions. Saying that someone suffers 5 damage doesn't reveal anything. How badly is he wounded? Is it a surface cut or a deep wound? Saying that he was slashed in the arm and he just dropped his weapon is far more useful, and dramatic. There's no need for a callout to communicate that.

Callouts are primarily useful in visual media. In games they guide the player, in comics they offer more information (and can be skipped). A novel is neither visual nor (usually) interactive. Callouts don't help.

Except in one critical case: in describing what is not obvious.

In the Murim Login and Omniscient Reader's Viewpoint, callouts appear at critical information to pass on key information to the protagonist (and therefore, the reader). In more game-oriented worlds like Arcane Sniper or Solo Leveling, windows appear to inform the protagonist of a new quest. These callouts are acceptable because they communicate valuable information that is not obvious to the reader and the protagonist—or other characters. Instead of slowing down the story, they drive the story. Instead of slowing down a fast-paced scene, their appearance maintains the momentum by giving the character information to work with.

The key to understanding callouts is that their appearance slows down the scene. This is not a good idea in combat—but acceptable when it's time for exposition.

Combat 'Strategies'

The primary purpose of stats is to attempt to translate combat to a gaming environment. D&D, the venerated ancestor of modern-day RPGs, was originally designed as a wargame, inspired by the wargames of its era. In the original D&D, high-level player characters were de facto feudal lords with private armies, who engaged in large-scale combat with other large groups of foes. D&D combat rules and mechanics thus had to be scaleable from low-level skirmishes with monsters to full-out campaigns. What applies to a scalable wargame does not necessarily apply to a video game focused on individual and small unit combat, which in turn does not necessarily apply to a prose novel.

To be perfectly blunt, many video game strategies will not work in real life. Tanking is chief among them. Unlike video game characters, humans cannot simply soak up damage without consequences. In real life, there is no health bar, and damage adds up over time to create a failure cascade. The more damage you take, the less capable you are of defending yourself, the more damage you will take. Combat in real life is a race against time.

Get two large bottles of soda. Punch a hole in the bottom of each bottle. This is how combat starts: both sides are expending time, energy and strength just to fight. As the fight drags on, they do damage to each other. Every hit is the equivalent of punching another hole into the other bottle. A fight is essentially a race to drain the other bottle before you are drained.

A human is not a tank. Even in full armor, getting hit hurts, and every hit could cause damage. Entire schools of martial arts were established for the singular purpose of killing men in full armor. Tanking only works in video games, when a character can soak up damage without the player feeling any pain, and when the character can always completely recover his lost health without long-term consequences.

It's one thing to write a story in which the characters are explicitly playing a game. It's another to write a story world that runs on game-like mechanics but is not a game. In the latter scenario, the general expectation is that the world runs like reality, unless otherwise noted—including a human's lack of ability to soak up damage without consequence.

On the screen or the gaming table, combat is abstract. On the page, combat is concrete. Every swing of a sword, every whistling arrow, every dazzling spell, everything the character experiences, the reader experiences at second-hand. Where TTRPGs and retro games require the user to exercise his imagination, and video games count on recorded animations, books offer far more freedom of movement, tactics, and action. With this freedom also comes with a greater level of authenticity, of closeness to the real action.

It is far more exciting to see heroes apply sound tactics to fights instead of tactics that will only work in video games. It also keeps the reader immersed in the story.

Levels, Skills and Experience Points

What is the purpose of levels? In RPGs, it is a shorthand for character progression and power. Experience points shows how much more progress to go. Simple, right? But as with stats, levels only have meaning when placed in wider context, when compared to other characters.

Furthermore, levels are not everything. They do not show you a person's character, how he will act, or what lies in the depths of his heart. It is not a shorthand for characterisation. Nor should differences in levels alone determine the outcome of a fight. Any competent RPG gamer will understand that taking down a higher-level creature, while difficult, is not impossible. Levels are not, and should not be, everything. A character is more than his stats and levels. Stats and levels only show what a character can do, not who the character is.Skills are gated behind levels in most RPGs. There are exceptions to the rule, but this is how most games are designed. These skills reinforce the idea that the character has become more skilled, more powerful, and more capable. Once he hits the level, the character learns the skill, and can perfectly pull it off on demand.

That's not how skills work in real life. Skills have to be consciously learned and perfected over time. Gongfu and cultivation require hard work—that's what the words mean.

The benefit of instant-learning skills in stories is that it cuts through weeks, months, even years of boring training time. The drawback is that handled poorly, it becomes implausible. Someone who is badly coordinated shouldn't suddenly be able to flash-step around an enemy with ease without clear justification. Lived experience shows how hard it is to learn a new skill. Without justifying instant learning, lived experience cuts in and kills suspension of disbelief.

Not only that, even in a world where you can download gongfu into your head, it doesn't necessarily teach you where and when to use a skill—and when not to. It doesn't teach you how to adapt the technique to changing situations either. This is especially important in a novel where combat is described at the granular level.

Feinting is one such skill. The goal is to convince opponent that attack is coming from one direction and have him defend against that line. In doing so, he opens another line, one which you can attack. But the type of opponent determines how you feint.

As Maija Solderholm advises, against a rookie, you have to make the move big and obvious so that he can actually see the move and react to it. But against a veteran, it has to look like a minor mistake, because the veteran knows the big, obvious move is a feint. This video shows how a feint against a skilled swordsman would actually play out.

As he approaches his training partner, Kuroda-sensei lifts his sword, as though preparing to cut at his partner's head. This primes his partner to block. Kuroda executes the cut, and his partner moves to block. But instead of cutting his partner, Kuroda retracts the sword into himself. This movement is a half-beat shorter and quicker than a sword cut. The swords don't even touch. This gives Kuroda the half-beat he needs to deliver the low cut and move out of the way in case his partner counter-cuts.

This is a feint that looks like an attack—and if the enemy doesn't move in time to block the high cut, the movement can flow into a true attack. Such an extraordinary level of skill requires knowing how to adapt the basic skills of feinting and attacking to the situation—and in the real world, long hours of dedicated training.

Evasion is another deceptively simple move. You just evade an incoming blow. But evasion is an art all by itself. How do you know which angle to step off? How low to duck under a blow? Where to go to set up your next move and prevent the enemy from following up with another attack? What can you do after you move? There's a world of difference between theory and execution, one that can be gulfed only by training and experience.

It's not enough for a character to learn to use a skill. He should also learn when to use a skill, when not to, and how to adapt that skill to changing situations. This makes skill learning scenes far more meaningful to the plot. This also makes levels and experience far more meaningful, because it reflects the character's accumulated experience and skill, not just his raw power.

Predictability and Repeatability, Meet Reality

Games are predictable and repeatable. Real life is not.

In a game, every time you press the attack button, the character executes the attack animation. This will always happen unless the character is under a status effect, the environment changes, or the character is in a cut scene.

In the real world, this is not always so.

You can slip on a surface. You can turn a joint a wrong way. You can misplace a foot. Someone may bump into you. The environment may get in your way. In the real world, there are an infinite number of ways things will go wrong when executing a move.

Game techniques are meant to be perfectly repeatable and predictable. When you do X, Y will always happen so long as everything remains the same. Being perfectly repeatable and predictable, techniques allow the player to develop strategies. By acting on strategies, the reader receives feedback on his actions, and either changes or continues the strategy. This creates feedback loops, driving the gamer's progress through the game.

Skill checks are similar. In games with simple skill checks, if a character's skill level exceeds a stated requirement, he passes immediately. If not, he fails. In more complex games, skill checks are probabilistic, and the higher the skill level, the greater the chances of success. Again, this ties repeatability and predictability, in quantifying the abstract to drive a game.

A novel is not a game. A novel takes place in the imagination. There is no requirement for repeatability, predictability or perfection.

During a tense sequence, think of how things can go wrong. A character makes a mistake. Enemy reinforcements arrive. A critical spell fizzles. Games can only go so far in emulating these mishaps. Prose provides a greater degree of creative freedom. As any experienced warrior will tell you, strange things happen all the time, little things with massive consequences down the line. Mishaps and weirdness provide excellent fodder for a plot twist, if done right.

Lit, Not Game

The LitRPG / gamelit genres provide fertile ground for creative ventures. But the author must understand this: game is the aesthetic, lit is the medium.

Writing a story as though it were a game only leads to poor prose. A video game is designed around players engaging the gameplay mechanics and gaming loops in a visual medium. A prose story takes the reader on a journey in his imagination. They have different design goals, different methods of engagement, different ways of telling stories.

While integrating gaming tropes into a story isn't a bad thing, it must be done with care. The focus must be on storytelling, not the gaming aspect. If the audience wants to play a game, he wouldn't be reading a novel. The gaming element of the gamelit tale is spice, flavouring, colouring. It is not the story.

When writing a LitRPG / gamelit story, focus on the lit. Not the game. There lies the way to writing a superior story.

Want more writing advice like this? Check out Pulp on Pulp!

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