I’ve recently seen people complaining about the (admittedly trite) fiction writer statement about how a character’s behavior can come seemingly out of nowhere, like they’re coming to life and acting out a will of their own, completely taking the writer by surprise. It’s absurd, so the argument goes, to act like this is some magical process external to the writer themself, to act like what ends up on the page is anything other than the result of practice, craftsmanship, and work. While I actually agree with that, I see nothing there which contradicts the idea of being surprised by one’s own creation. That kind of surprise needn’t be the result of any mystical instillment of life, some kind of creation myth, but is completely understandable within the normal patterns of human thought.

First, even though a character is, by necessity, a part of the author’s own mind, that doesn’t mean that the author has full awareness of which parts of their mind went into that character. Our brains are a massive and complicated web of associations, so whenever we pull an idea into a character we pull other ideas in as well, making connections that we don’t consciously notice but lie latent in our brain. Second, though we lay all the groundwork of a story and its cast of characters, we often miss obvious and elegant places to make connections on our first pass, and these gaps, obvious and arcing electricity, very quickly jump out at us in the process of building out and improving upon a work. These surprises are no different than the other surprises of the creative process, and most creative processes are full of surprises: The way an accidental pencil mark becomes a scar becomes a war wound becomes a tragic past; the way a lie becomes a secret becomes a conspiracy.

To assume we can’t be surprised by our creations is to assume we can’t be surprised by ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I am frequently surprised by my own mind, the strange connections it makes, the stupid mistakes it overlooks, the illusion of understanding and completeness it represents to my consciousness while failing to capture huge amounts of relevant information. It’s far more mystical and egotistical, in this light, to suggest a writer could never be surprised by their own character than to suggest that it regularly happens.

Surprises like these emerge in all forms of art. ‘Happy accidents’ are a huge part of the creative process, and the ability to recognize them and use them to bolster the act of creation is one of the primary skills one learns as an artist. The texture of the paper becomes part of the picture, the noise in the recording becomes part of the song. With games, developers are frequently surprised by the weird and unexpected results that are generated by the systems they have created: This potential for the unexpected, for ’emergent gameplay’, is one of the most lauded aspects of the medium. Why, then, is it at all strange to see the creative processes of other media generate results that were unanticipated by the creator?


No the skull is good! It signifies change!

It’s different though, isn’t it? A novel may surprise the writer with the direction it takes, but once it takes that direction it is static, crystallized – published. A game, however, can be fed different inputs to create new surprises, to continually become the same engine of excitement and inspiration and discovery that the writer experiences as they create. Thus, we see a huge and fundamental difference between the art of the video game and that of traditional forms: Traditional art is created by simulating an imagined reality within the mind and crystallizing the result into a finished work, while game art is created by creating a simulation of reality external to the mind and giving it to the audience to produce their own results.

This is not to say that games are either a lesser or greater form, or even that they use completely dissimilar skill sets to earlier forms. The skill of appraising the output of an internal, imaginary simulation for interest and aesthetic quality is used to calibrate the external simulations of games, to ensure that they produce something interesting and worthwhile. The skill to understand and portray what is imagined is used to provide presentation and meaning to the otherwise abstract systems of games – creating, through models and textures, music and voiceover and supplementary text, a visual, aural, and historical world for the simulator to act within . These skills all act in concert, whether through an individual or team of hundreds, to produce an externalized system for the audience to experience.

Once an external simulation is created, we have then essentially created an engine for producing the same kinds of stories that were previously produced by imaginary simulations. Of course someone’s Minecraft playthrough is no match for a well-written novel in narrative quality, since it’s systemically constrained to a much smaller set of more predictable outcomes, but the story created is their own and belongs to no one but them. And, if they’re a sufficiently talented maestro or their experiences are especially outlandish, is it any wonder that other people are interested in seeing their story and hearing it told? Thus we have Let’s Plays, the personal stories of players created through the engine of gameplay, their story of their adventures in this simulated realm, told in real time. This is not exactly new – externalized narrative simulations existed long before video games and have been used as a creative engine by artists: Entire successful novel franchises have been built from pen and paper RPG campaigns and war games. Improv games have been used to train actors to shape a personal reality and then portray it to the audience. So we have writers honing their craft through games, actors honing their craft through games, and youtube personalities honing their craft through games, and each are players on their own stage. Even memoir could be viewed this way, as a record of a particular experience within an external system, though in that case the system is the world we occupy itself.

Thus, through their portrayal of their constructed realities, through the product of both their imaginary and external simulations, they create an art of communication and convey it to their audience: There, it takes root, and becomes the seeds of a new imaginary simulation, one which itself may some day be used to produce a work of art, or be codified into rules to become its own externalized simulation. And so the circle of art goes on.


And, as with most such circles, it starts with musical numbers and tragic death scenes

  1. Well stated! I am often surprised by what my imagination and characters do. The same can be said of the stories I create in my mind while playing a game. Immersion, in game or in a novel I’ve read straight through. I am one of those all or nothing kind of reader and player. When my kids were teens, we were a WOW household. We communicated through team speak and raids. It kept us talking during a time when they might have otherwise shut me out. The stories my imagination creates during game play in Skyrim and other RPG titles frequently spins off characters later in my writing. To me gaming is a high speed method of interacting with my imagination. I do have to put down the control in order to pick up the craft of writing. Because I engage so completely with a game, I can’t write and play, not even alternating time.

  2. As a 28 y.o. writer, I can say that video games as a storytelling medium has profoundly impacted me as a writer. I might never have been a writer if it weren’t for video games letting me live through wild, challenging, heart wrenching and glorious tales =)

  3. Fascinating post! It’s amazing how emergent properties appear in mediums, but especially games. I remember an interview with one of the developers of the original Bioshock, they were talking about the crossbow and it’s electrified bolts. Well, they hadn’t designed the bolts to be picked up and reused by the player’s kinesis ability, but somehow it ended out working that way and it opened up new battle strategies for the player.

  4. Assume It's Possible said:

    Well written – character development can be so many different things to many different people. My friends and I had vastly different experiences and reactions to “THE LAST OF US” – i found it profoundly moving, as did several of my friends, whilst others found the story telling narrative to be an annoyance. The delivery method and overall outcome can be entirely depedant on the recipient’s experiences and the outcomes are interesting to watch. Thought provoking. Thanks.

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