Some of you may know that, prior to my meteoric rise to the top as the 845,239th highest-ranked writer in SF/MSF/SFF on Amazon, I was regarded as an expert in the video game industry.*
Even now, with me fending off national periodicals on the daily* for interviews and cooking tips, I still find time to play the occasional video game.
If you're a gamer yourself, you're probably aware that we're in the midst of a new golden age. Games look better, play better, and simply ARE better than ever before.
While gameplay is king, writing has taken a larger role in the overall narrative of gaming. Whereas we were once satisfied to see an Italian plumber jump on goombas and fight a dinosaur to save a princess (makes perfect sense), now we want complex narratives about the good and evil in the world, and how we affect the outcome of global events.
As an example, I usually pull up the Uncharted series, which is pretty much the foundation upon which any argument can be mounted. It is impeccably written, perfectly acted, and still fun as hell to play.
In the latest installment (Uncharted 4, not the new spinoff--which is also amazing), the main character Nathan Drake takes a moment in the middle of an epic adventure to have a deeply honest conversation with his wife. It is one of the most poignant scenes I have ever witnessed in a video game, and it comes across as truthful and earned, something even big budget movies fail to achieve.
But sometimes the best stories aren't the ones explicitly told, which brings us to today's blog:
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen.
If you followed me back when I wrote for CC2KOnline, you should remember my novel-length treatise on the original (remake) of the XCOM series. I had planned to do another one for the sequel, but found myself too busy actually playing the game to figure out an addition to the narrative.
For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, it is a turn-based strategy game, wherein you and a ragtag team of soldiers, scientists, and engineers take on a viscous alien invasion. While you, the player, are an incorporeal and omnipresent Commander, your soldiers are all unique. In fact, the main fun comes from creating a team of soldiers based on people in your life, then trying to keep them alive against overwhelming odds.
This created, for me, the real narrative of the game (and where I ended up taking my own story). Your soldiers are up against overwhelming odds, possibly looking for their own loved ones in their down time. Eventually, you start experimenting with their minds and bodies, turning them into monsters as a last-ditch effort to defeat the very real monsters at your door.
In XCOM 2, the same is true. Now, however, you are not a defensive force. Instead, you play the Resistance, fighting an alien occupation that is overwhelming compared to your meager fleet. It is brutal, bloody, and so much fun. But it was missing that connection, that meta thread between your soldiers. I had plans to write another narrative-based review when an expansion arrived.
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen is written by Chad Rocco and Scott Wittbecker, but it is unfair to give them all the credit. Unlike film or TV, video game narrative is just as dependent on the directors (Jacob Solomon and Mr. Rocco), and the creative team behind gameplay decisions (William Gale, JB Blanc, Jack Scalici).
In the expansion, your underdog crew now faces god-like beings called "The Chosen." These three aliens can appear at any time, and their goal isn't just to kill your soldiers. They try to divide and capture, gather intel, and start probing operations for your base. If they find you, they can end the game before it even starts.
Your soldiers now suffer from fatigue, forcing you to rotate them in and out of combat more realistically. They can also form bonds between their fellow squadmates, improving their tactics and granting them new abilities. This comes at a price, as losing a bondmate in the heat of battle can lead to dire consequences.
This is how you build a meta-narrative. These threads of a story underneath the main quest add to the overall world. For me, this is where the game takes off. I'm the kind of player that craves a narrative. If there isn't one apparent, I'll invent it. When I play Civilization, there are stories for each city and army. When I play Command and Conquer, I break my units into platoons and companies, each with their own paths to follow. And with XCOM, I had soldiers forming bonds, relationships, and even finding loved ones.
And then this expansion came along and made it even better.
Now, as a writer, how can you do the same? You may be working on a TV show or a movie or a novel, but the same principals apply. When you build your world, look for those meta threads. A great question I was asked once, at a write-in event for NaNoWriMo, was this: Where does your space station get the raw materials for ships?
Now, I sort of knew the answer, but it got me going down a creative path. What is the economy of this universe I've created? Where do people buy groceries? How do they earn money? What is the universal currency?
That led to me playing Universal Risk, figuring out how and why wars started, who won, what were the spoils.
I'm not saying you need to write this all down for your reader. Quite the opposite in fact. But I think you should know, and allow that knowledge to affect the narrative. Your reader has to trust you, understand that you are in complete control of this world. Little details that color in the background go a long way toward improving immersion.
What are some instances of meta narrative that you particularly enjoyed? Any medium, no wrong answers!