Games for Writers – Dark Souls


Disclaimer: This article has been a long time coming. At this point, I’m actually a little reluctant to write about video games on here instead of just post straight writing talk, but, like I said last post, I feel I deserve a break and this post is ultimately about writing anyway. Still, just to start us off, apologies if you’re a writer but not a gamer.

This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Because there’s a really, really great chance you’ve already played Dark Souls. I have to acknowledge immediately that last gen, I was incredibly close-minded about the series I played (for a long time, it was almost totally Playstation 1 era series or GTFO). So, forgive me, but I still haven’t played Mass Effect. I haven’t played any of the Dead Space’s except for the last one. I gave Assassin’s Creed two minutes before giving up on it.

And, until it was offered for free on XBL a few months ago, I’d never played Dark Souls. I’d never played Dark Souls and I was really, really tired of hearing people go on about how awesome Dark Souls is.

And now, of course, please humor me as I go on for way too long about how fucking awesome Dark Souls is and explain why it’s probably one of the best series a prospective Fantasy writer could ever play.

For the sake of not just ranting, I will do this in two direct points that support one bottom line: for a game with extremely little actual story, Dark Souls has a weirdly moving story exclusively because of really subtle but strong world-building.

Point 1: The Bosses Have So Much Charm / Mystique / Whatever That They’re Characters

So, I posted a link a while back on Twitter about the music I was using for a writing session. This is the song I linked. It’s the music that plays while you fight Gravelord Nito. And, really, if you haven’t played Dark Souls, just from reading this paragraph, you already know almost all there is to know about Gravelord Nito; his name, you fight him, he’s in Dark Souls. Here—I’ll round out your knowledge of him; he’s “the first of the undead.” He’s a god made of skeletons that are mashed together. He wears a cloak made out of darkness and he wields a big sword. There. That’s about 90% of all there is to know about him.

That said, I… love… Gravelord Nito. I definitely didn’t do him justice with my description in the last paragraph because I really can’t; I gave you hard facts and, as there are for most of the bosses in Dark Souls, there are next to no hard facts to be had about him. I can tell you as much about Gravelord Nito’s definitive personality as I could tell you about any other boss in Dark Souls—nothing.

But… there is a ton of characterization that I simply can’t explain because you’d have to experience it to understand. Gravelord Nito isn’t just awesome because he’s a (truly) awesome looking, giant skeleton(s) man with a sword; he’s awesome because it takes you, the player, many—many—hours of struggle to get to him. He’s awesome because you have to go through the Tomb of Giants to find him and the Tomb of Giants is incredibly dark, terrifying and dangerous. He’s awesome because, despite being Dark Souls’ god of death, he’s tucked at the back of a nondescript hole in a wall deep underground. He’s awesome because he’s sleeping in a giant coffin in that hole but he comes out to kill you when you show up; and because, at the start of his boss fight, he slowly walks out of the dark to face you.

And—before I keep just listing these minute, seemingly throw-a-way details—what do any of these details say?

Well, hours of struggle to even get the chance to be killed by him immediately gives him a huge degree of godly mystique—he’s so important that not just anyone can turn on the game and face him.

His being beyond the pitch black Tomb of Giants, with its giant skeletons (all untouched until you come along) says that no one has faced him in ages—it says that he is beyond an unfathomable depth.

That he’s tucked at the end of a weird, small hole in a cave says all kinds of potentially terrifying things about the mysteries of the unseen; according to Dark Souls, a god could be sleeping at the end of a cave in my local park, which is, immediately, more terrifying than placing him at the end of a huge, obviously evil castle. But, to bring this back to Nito, it says that he’s possibly beyond human trappings and flattery; he’s beyond needing a temple in his name somehow—a cave is fine for his slumber just as a grave is fine for any human.

And, of course, the fact that he’s sleeping when you find him and the way that he slowly walks around to face you speaks volumes about how ancient he is. The design choice to make him hunch-backed adds to this idea.

All of this… conveyed… with subtle detail. It blows my mind. It blows my mind even more because this is a fraction of what Dark Souls conveys about one boss. Just about all of the bosses in this game have that much silent detail worked into them. My reflex here is to just rattle off a bunch of boss names and a handful of their details, but it will mean absolutely nothing to you if you haven’t played it, so instead, I’ll just say this:

If you’re a Fantasy writer, I can honestly not think of a better lesson than Dark Souls on how to give your monsters and villains real, evocative mystique and story with almost no dialogue. In a really weird, writery kind of way, every boss in this game is beautiful. Seriously, for the first time in ages, even though I knew next to nothing about him, I actually got upset when I killed the last boss.

Phew… Okay. I have to move on now.

Point 2: The Settings Tell a Story

As you may have noticed, I got derailed on one of my points about Nito and started talking about how his cave was oddly terrifying in how normal it is. I didn’t take that out because, ya know, laziness, but that environmental element is one thread of the really dense tapestry of Lordran, the setting for Dark Souls.

I do not want to start the Ever-Rant again and I also don’t want to get spoilery, so I’ll cut my explanation down to this: at one point, you start to venture down beneath the starting area. The starting area is a town, so what’s beneath it winds up being, at first, a large, weird cellar. In that cellar, waiting around a collection of long tables, there is a large group of Hollows (feral undead [there are undead who aren’t feral, like your character]). In this same room with the Hollows, on a sub level, there’s a giant, undead butcher cutting large pieces of meat. If you defeat all of these enemies and then happen to explore the hole directly behind the butcher’s table, you’ll fall into a pit, landing directly onto a large pile of discarded bodies. It’s gross—I know. But not as gross as the huge, undead rat that’s on the level below, a spear sticking out of one of its eyes.

And, seriously, the point is not to gross you out. The point here is to give you a good example of the completely silent but weirdly detailed storytelling that’s all over Lordran. The butcher is preparing meals for all of the Hollows that are waiting above him. What the butcher doesn’t use, he throws downstairs, meaning that he’s serving humans or undead to the Hollows above for whatever reason. But regardless, downstairs is where the giant rat eats what he throws away (growing gigantic from left-overs its been scavenging for years, presumably). For bonus points, the spear in the rat’s eye implies that someone was thrown down here in fighting shape and tried to defend themselves.

This kind of detail is everywhere. And, sure, there are just strange, video gamey locations too that are clearly designed to get the player from point A to B. But then, there are little spots like the area directly before Nito, where a large group of ancient, lifeless skeletons are all kneeling in worship, facing the portal that leads to him, until they fall apart at your touch.

Despite having pretty much no dialogue or plot, Lordran is incredibly alive with story. And, of course, working in details like these shouldn’t compromise your writing (for example, I’m definitely not suggesting that you wedge the armory where your lizardmen make their giant lizard swords into a story just to show that, hey, this is how they get their swords [especially not when world-building like that is easiest in a medium like video games, where ambling and looking at everything is natural]). But it’s always a good thing to remember to make your world that alive.

As countless other areas in Dark Souls showed me, the setting is a place that exists without your character’s influence.

The Bottom Line: Even Though It Doesn’t Have a Story, Dark Souls Has Tons of Story

Even if you’re not convinced, you should still give Dark Souls a try if only because the very last area in the game is—I promise—beautifully evocative. It placed so much mystique on the final boss that, like I said, I was actually upset when I killed him, as if I was making a mistake. It was a feeling I’ve only gotten one other time—at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and that game had the benefit of a million cutscenes and tons of dialogue. The fact that Dark Souls got the same emotion from me with next to no dialogue, will always blow my mind.

So, if you haven’t played Dark Souls, I promise it will positively impact your Fantasy writing. Even if you’ve already played it but didn’t pay attention to the fine details, play it again with a keener eye. Look out for all of the subtle things it does and, if you haven’t, just look up all of its secrets (because this is the kind of game that has huge, completely missable secrets). I promise that you will not regret at least seeing the subtlety of Lordran and its cast of silent characters.


Well, apologies if this post was a little short, but it was seriously an effort not to go on forever about this game and spoil everything for you. Still, I hope that you enjoyed! If you did, I’d appreciate a Like and a Follow!

In the middle of the month, I’ll come back to straight writing talk. In fact, I might—might—come back with the most difficult topic I possibly can. At least, it immediately feels like a difficult, dangerous topic. We’ll see. If you don’t want to miss a post about something I’m even reluctant to mention here, you should Subscribe! Cause I’m probably going to write about it anyway…! … Yay!

But, regardless, thanks for reading! And, as always, write well!


Tips for Games for Writers – The CR Trap

Disclaimer: I thought I’d take a new turn with this post. I’ve put out a handful of Games for Writers articles before in which I talk about specific games that promote good writing in large or small ways. However, I’ve never written any warnings to budding fantasy writers about the (many) bad influences gaming can have on their writing. Thus, here we are, with the first of my Tips for Games for Writers. Enjoy!

So, in this month between finishing War of Exiles and starting its content edit, I’ve pretty heavily picked up my gaming again. Not because I need to play video games, but because, in the comfortable glow of only having an outline for a different story to casually chip away at, why not?

As if I need to have goals now, however, I’m not playing anything new; I’ve instead gone back to super old games I never got 100% in (at least until Titanfall hits the 360). Examples of how I’ve been wasting my time: Fallout 3, Beyond Good & Evil, Half-Life 2. Essentially, I’m trying desperately to complete some of my favorites before this generation officially ends for me in September with Destiny.

But anyway, my current gaming goals aren’t the article here. The article—and my particular need to write it—came while playing Fallout 3. I was on an alien space ship, my character, Norman Osborn, discovering that he’d been made into a cyborg by his alien captors (I seriously just took the Cyborg perk [unnecessary roleplay FTW]), was raging, hurling Plasma Grenades everywhere. It was a good time.

Until I reached the higher level aliens. They clearly had shielding that made them stronger, and although it didn’t feel like it made perfect sense, they were so much more powerful than their unshielded buddies that they cut right into my grenade-hurling good times. Fun turned into plugging what felt like way, way too many shots into the same, stringy alien with my extremely powerful Firelance until it finally died.

Which absolutely made me reflect on countless other such moments—particularly in Bethesda games, but really present in any RPG; you encounter a level 20 enemy while you’re level 1 and, OMFG, you’d better run because that enemy, no matter how disarmingly huggable, is just not going down.

And this, of course, reminded me of when I started writing and how the phenomenon of the high level puppy dog not even feeling my rocket launcher shots—what I now present here as The CR Trap—impacted my work for the worse.

First, What’s “CR”?

If you’re unaware, “CR” stands for “Challenge Rating”; it’s a term I picked up from D&D and it’s the result of an equation that dictates how strong a monster is in relation to all of the players’ characters (a CR 5 is a well matched challenge for a team of four level 5 characters). To put it simply, they’re the decided strength of a monster or character, assigned to supplement a gaming experience.

And often found in every other kind of storied media. Movies? Comics? Books? They all have Challenge Ratings, intentionally or not.

Now, What’s the CR Trap?

It immediately sounds like I’m saying Challenge Ratings are bad; they’re not. They are, however, a gaming tool that doesn’t apply well to writing when they’re misused. When used well, Challenge Ratings are fantastic tools for making more enjoyable experiences (comics are notorious for having Challenge Ratings that dictate how much a normal human can withstand for the sake of being more enjoyable to readers [the Punisher and Batman are two great examples of characters who can take an unrealistic amount of punishment and still come out fine because the audience wants them to (and before you start raging, I’m sorry, but Batman would’ve died the very first time Solomon Grundy punched him 30 feet to smack into a wall JLU style; not being abrasive here—just realistic)]).

However, Challenge Ratings can very, very easily become a personal meta that feels unrealistic to everyone else and that cheapens your writing. To clarify here, establishing clear rules for your characters (they’re all vampires or some other race that has what I think of as “the durability suite” of super powers [moderate super strength, speed, agility and endurance]) isn’t what I mean. What I mean is (perhaps unwittingly) setting rules beyond that to further ensure the safety of your characters. What I mean is you’ve grown up with video games for so long that your human characters can illogically take more than a single gunshot wound and still be fine; against all reason, they can get shot eight times and still scurry behind a waste-high wall and meta-heal enough to rush on to some final objective before ultimately surviving. That is the CR Trap in its most basic and universal form.

However, it absolutely goes deeper than that and gets complex enough that I probably shouldn’t be presenting it here without way more explanation of its different facets, but whatever. Let’s have a good time instead!

The RPG-Forged CR Trap and Me

If you’re anything like me, you’re a fantasy writer who grew up on RPG’s. Even if they didn’t heavily influence your writing in any way, it’s a safe bet that you still carry accidental hints of your writing lineage in your work. Maybe your characters are more stylized. Maybe they have more elaborate weapons or you naturally gravitate to more action-oriented plots.

Or maybe… you’ve actually written the scene where the protagonist faces off against a giant monster and, against all logic, the protagonist comes out unscathed… and defeats the monster by hitting it only once. This is the CR Trap I grew up with, forged on the RPG’s inability to realistically portray violence.

And maybe you’re thinking, “What? Seriously? There’s tons of violence in the RPG’s I play.” Not debatable. However, think about a turn-based RPG like Bravely Default. Your characters have their turns—they run up, execute their attacks and then fall back. The enemy they hit reels for a moment, and then falls very cleanly back into the same stance they had before. It’s a small moment and the tiniest lack of realism, easy to keep out of your work.

Until you see it hundreds… of thousands of times without realizing it. It may sound silly, but consider that possibly, without realizing it was happening, you were trained by your turn-based RPG to see that moment—the waiting enemy, the perfect sword strike, the reel and recovery—as a reasonable approximation of a battle with a vicious monster. And, of course, you know that’s not how the fight would actually go, but it is, perhaps, the very first thing you think of when you try to picture said battle.

And now imagine that that single moment… is actually part of a suite of misconceptions video games have ingrained in you.

  • Like the misconception—provided by a truly awesome and high quality game like Skyrim, for example—that attacking a monster might not illicit any physical reaction whatsoever (because Stunning is tied to Critical Hits and certain moves to make it a gameplay feature).
  • Or the idea that an enemy would pose and act for visual flare, never attacking in a way that sacrificed aesthetics for brutal, logical efficiency.
  • Or the subliminal idea that when battles start, all environmental elements are stripped away and replaced with a large, flat expanse as to not impede the action.

I could go on until I round back to the concept of a Level 1 Barbarian fleeing from a Level 99 Tribble, but if you love video games as much as I do, you’ll know all of these incongruities yourself. Because you always have.

The CR Trap’s Effect on Your Fantasy Writing

I’ll be completely honest with you—I did not catch myself falling into the trap until I finished the first draft of War of Exiles. No lie, rereading the Prologue, in which my protagonist has an encounter with a monster (geez, I even used “encounter”), was actually what sparked the need to rewrite the entire book. It was a horrible, horrible mess of a fight because I basically wrote a turn-based RPG encounter. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but… I’ll strike off a list for you.

  • The monster, though harmed, did not suffer any serious damage or react to said damage with anything more than a roar and reel before recovering all of its mobility and faculties. Essentially, it was only pretend harmed.
  • The monster, though intelligent, had a collection of visually impressive but extremely useless attacks and abilities that it used slowly and illogically (classically ensnaring my protagonist and slowly pulling him towards itself… instead of immediately running up and killing him while he was helpless on the ground).
  • The battle started in the center of town, perfectly and unrealistically large for a small town and absolutely devoid of any obstructions aside from one decorative fountain that was effectively cut out the moment the fight started.

The only thing I didn’t do was have Lethe and the monster stand facing each other, weapons ready, posed and breathing as action bars filled up.

It’s odd to remember how much I relished writing the original scene too; it wasn’t just that I thought it was passable—I thought it was cool and exciting.

And that’s what the CR Trap does; it ironically lowers the Challenge Rating of your fight scenes by scripting you with the familiar; you feel right at home and comfortable and successful as your character cuts a giant spider’s leg but doesn’t really cut it because reasons. The spider jumps back and strikes again even though it’s gigantic and this is happening in what was just described as a castle courtyard crowded with statues, the spider missing every now-ignored statue because reasons. When the spider strikes  again, it grazes or, despite what should probably be unreal agility, totally misses. Because reasons. Long-ingrained, comfortable reasons.

Getting Out of the Trap

If you feel like you’ve written these kinds of scenes and want to change them, it’s a not at all simple process of going back and thinking very clearly about what’s really happening in your fight scenes. In particular, think about whatever monster or threat your characters are facing and consider something that’s absolutely foreign to video game fodder—what this monster’s individual motivation is. Try to plot how it would advance and how it would attack and stay true to that even if you still come out with a simple “It wants to kill my protagonist,” and especially if you find a complicated, scene-ruining answer like, “This creature would absolutely run away or try to run away if confronted.”

Also, and probably even more essential for combat scenes, don’t simplify your arenas, whether that means not always putting fights in conveniently cleared out “boss rooms,” or not forgetting the table in the center of the room.

But, if there’s one thing I’d suggest above all of this, it’s to put your characters in reasonable, honest danger. If you want your character to fight a giant spider, alone, admit that there’s a fantastic chance that spider (or a reasonably scaled threat for those protagonists who can easily kill a giant spider) will absolutely, ruthlessly, and efficiently kill your protagonist. At the very least, admit and embrace the idea that your characters can face insurmountable dangers in your story, even if thise dangers are never on-screen; that your protagonist isn’t the untouchable badass you usually follow to the end of a video game. To put it simply, write legitimate, suspenseful danger.

And, hey, while you’re at it, also make sure that no other gaming contrivances are plaguing your work (i.e. no fall damage or extremely convenient, nonsensical inventory systems [in particular, none of last gen’s ridiculously standard, “He slipped the weapon onto his back.”]).

Balancing the Trap

It is incredibly comfortable to just stick with the CR Trap and, for the sake of being cool and more appropriate for more audiences, many, many people do stick to it by small degrees; professionally produced stories absolutely follow the mold for the sake of not challenging audiences, who usually don’t really want to be challenged by their favorite characters dying unceremoniously. And that absolutely makes sense.

But in the case of fantasy, even if the average reader doesn’t want a play-by-play on what parts of a monster are sheared off during a fight (and I think the general audience probably doesn’t), any Fantasy-loving adult would be far, far more engrossed with a realistic, high-stakes battle (or chase or hunt). And none of them really want to read the fantasy novel where characters are never actually in danger or where the environment is oddly cleared for every encounter. There’s obviously a balance here and, like all elements of writing, the Challenge Rating meta you set in your work is up to you. But that’s just it—always be mindful of what you’re doing and make it an intentional choice for your story whether or not characters can takes thousands of pounds of knuckled force to the face and still get up.


 This wound up being… so much more involved and complicated of a post than I expected. But, if you enjoyed, I’d love a Comment, Like, and/or Subscription. Regardless, thanks for reading!

Games for Writers: The Walking Dead – Season One


Wow. I haven’t written one of these in a while. But as Season Two of The Walking Dead releases tomorrow and as I hit more scenes in my Outline that need to be completely overhauled, I felt now was a perfect time to get back to my Games for Writers series.

Why The Walking Dead?

I have a tendency to buy critically acclaimed titles and just leave them alone for years (I’m still sitting on Fez). In most cases it’s because I know something intense and high quality is waiting and I want to be sure I’m ready for it. That was especially true with Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. I was told the ending was heartbreaking and I generally prefer to control my intake of “heartbreaking.” So I put it off until this Halloween, at which point I discovered that oh man, seriously, I underestimated just how hard I would be hit by the story—particularly the last few hours.

However, this article isn’t about the conclusion. While the drama of No Time Left, Season One’s final chapter, was really, really potent, there’s something a bit more practical and universal that makes this game worth a play for any writer. Not the concept of making people bawl their eyes out, but the concept of Choice when it comes to your characters and your writing. Yes, if there’s one thing I think writers should play The Walking Dead to experience, it’s the constant, inescapable presence of Choice.

You and 45% of players gave her the gun

For writers, Choice is a very serious, very high stakes, and very constant factor in the story-telling process. The writer experiences it themselves the moment they take up their pen, because even that moment—before any words have even been set on paper—is steeped in choices: “Where do I start?” “Who’s in this scene?” “Where do I want this to go?” “What are these characters going to do?” I believe all writers know this, and I believe that even if a writer played this game simply to experience the way it trains you to make important choices, they will have gotten their money’s worth.

Clementine will remember you said that.

LS-Dubious-tineKnowsHowever, Choice goes deeper than just what the writer wants. At the very least, in the best stories, choices are also constantly and logically made by characters. I think we’ve experienced a handful of games that pervert the concept; while I love it, games like Skyrim present you with a mostly blank slate to mold into whatever character you like, and in my experience, most people turn that canvas into a confused, meta-self portrait with no real in-game motivations. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who choose to roleplay their characters, but I’m also sure most people just did a 100% play through where their incredibly judgmental, culturally traditional, Storm Cloaks-aligned Nord just said, “Fuck it. Yeah, I’ll be a vampire. : D Cause, vampire powers!”

The Walking Dead, however, makes choice something that characters do. You can absolutely play it the way you want and make your own Lee with his own consequences, but the consequences are what make the experience, and those consequences are largely out of your hands because, most of the time, they’re based on the actions of NPC’s. More than any other game I’ve played, The Walking Dead makes you believe and relate to the characters around you, even if you play a completely meta Lee. It does a frighteningly good job of making you understand why and how Lilly is crazy, for example, or most often and most clearly, what Clementine thinks of you based on what you say, do and tell her. To tie it in more tightly here, it shows you exactly how your decisions—your choices—affect others and lead them to choices of their own. In short, it gives you characters that feel frighteningly real and whose ability to think for themselves is absolutely a lesson any writer would benefit from experiencing. I don’t think every story can foster a host of character decisions, but The Walking Dead stands as a compelling example of how characters should act—alive. Self-centered. Real.

All of the Decisions Ever

However, there’s another meta take on all of this. I mentioned earlier that I was reaching more parts of my Outline that needed to change in my first draft. The thing is, that statement implies that I found mistakes and inaccuracies that needed fixing. In some cases, yes. But in most cases, I realized a fact that The Walking Dead makes incredibly obvious:

There are almost infinite ways that scenes can work—almost infinite ways events can unfold in a story—based on the desires, beliefs and decisions of its characters.

There’s an inherent pressure in writers to find the “right” scene. We reach for vaguely defined, optimal approaches—infinitely perfect moments—for each scene that we believe will make them perfect. In a lot of cases, this ideal scene is the beginning of our story and many of us wait for that lightning to strike until we sadly forget the expected shape of it and move on to something else. The thing is, there is no ideal—no brilliant first sentence that will shake everyone who reads it. That isn’t how writing works; no one falls in love with a novel because of its first sentence. People memorize the first lines of classics and brandish them on occasion, but the merits of classics are not in the sentences they begin with. They’re in the characters they begin with.

And that is why I changed some scenes back to the way they were; when I chose to add or subtract moments in an attempt to find that ideal, I ignored what characters had done before as illogical. But then, during the actual rewrite, as I started to listen to my character’s decisions, I found that a lot of those ideal changes I made didn’t make sense; in the final version of my book, scenes either regressed to mirrors of older scenes with drastically different, more character-relevant tones, or I changed them a third time, based on how my characters felt and what other decisions they’d made.

The lesson for me, and the one The Walking Dead makes clearly, is that the choices all of your characters make are as important as the choices you make as a writer. And those two things are not always the same and can’t always be the same; at the risk of sounding completely crazy, your characters can and will disagree with you and you have to let them. Even if it means you’re undoing your own work or sitting at your computer for hours trying to figure out—“Wait… so, if he does that here… that means… … <sigh>.” Put simply, if you don’t consider what your characters actually want to do or say—what they actually think and feel—in favor of putting them where you want them and speaking your words through them, you need to play The Walking Dead if only to be humbled. If only to realize that your character’s decisions can and should come first.



Well, that got intense. As always, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this latest in my Games for Writers series, there are three others here (although, friendly warning, they’re all over three years old and may contain a lot of snappy jokes [that I’m… willing myself… to not edit out for the sake of honesty and integrity]):

Games for Writers: Silent Hill 2

Games for Writers: Metroid Prime

Games for Writers: Metal Gear Solid 3 – Snake Eater

All Likes, Comments, and Subscribes are appreciated as well, but regardless of those, I hope you have an awesome holiday!