Writing Prose in Game Worlds

Whenever I tell people I’ve written a novel set in a videogame universe, one of the most common responses is, “that sounds like fun!” They’re not wrong! But what I found was that making sure it’s fun, for both the writer and the reader, required developing a slightly new way of thinking about storytelling, even though I’d written both novels and games before.

If we think about what makes games fun, we tend to come up with two basic categories: the gameplay or ludic elements, and the narrative elements. Games can fall anywhere on a broad spectrum of how much of the experience is playing and how much is experiencing a story, and the distinction can be quite fuzzy: for example, if your player character solves the puzzle that tells him why his father disappeared years ago, that is a moment for character growth and plot movement as well as player interactivity.

It’s tempting to think of tie-in fiction as simply representing the narrative half of the game world, with the ludic elements cut away. At its most basic, related fiction will tell a story set in the same universe as the game, and possibly with some of the same characters or plot elements. And hey, game settings do tend to be pretty cool.

But I found it helpful to think of tie-in fiction as another way to partake in the experience that makes the game great, not just part of the lore. If what makes a particular game fun for players is, say, dungeon building, then how cool is it to get the chance to linger a little over a cleverly designed lair in prose? If the game focuses on the acquisition of skills, maybe the fiction gives the reader a chance to experience a training sequence with more time to think about the subtle and complex emotions involved. Maybe the fiction can explore and expand on some of the same vicarious experiences that make the game cool, using a tool the game doesn’t have: linear prose. The reader doesn’t have a player character, but they do have a way in to the story through point-of-view.

Playing to your format’s strengths

Of course, I should caution against taking the idea above too far, or too literally, and having the characters in your story or novel levelling up their stats or cataloguing their weapons. What is fun in a game can easily become boring or seem artificial in prose. Each should take full advantage of its own format. 

Prose can do things that games can’t, and games can do things that novels can’t. But prose can be immersive and satisfying. And in a certain sense, it can be interactive. The reader can be engaged in trying to figure out a twist or a mystery – isn’t that just solving puzzles, in a way? The reader will be rooting for or against a character, and watching characters grow and change. As I was writing, I often reminded myself that reading a novel isn’t any more passive than playing a game.  

Another thing that prose can do is fill out parts of the world or backstory in detail that games may not have room to include. This can be a bit of a challenge for the writer, in fact: with more narrative space to work with, there may be parts of the world or your characters’ lives that you need to imagine without having seen them in the game.

The business side

In my experience, a writer can have a surprising amount of latitude and creativity, telling their own story inside an expansive world. But of course, that will vary by project and universe. So will the terms of your contract, but in general, there are a few business-related things to consider. 

Any prose you write in a game universe will almost certainly be work for hire, which means it’s not your intellectual property. You may have to keep some things confidential, and you may need to consider canon and the larger universe. You may need approval for your outlines and for the final manuscript. And as with all tie-in work, deadlines can be tighter than in other kinds of publishing.

But as long as you go into it with your expectations clear, it can indeed be a lot of fun. It’s a chance to extend a hand to a reader and say: come on, let’s play together.

Kate Heartfield

Kate Heartfield’s novel Assassin’s Creed: The Magus Conspiracy is published by Aconyte Books. Her novel The Embroidered Book, published earlier this year, a Sunday Times bestselling historical fantasy about Marie Antoinette and her sister, Maria Carolina. Kate’s novels, novellas, short stories and games have won or been shortlisted for several major awards, including three Nebula nominations in the novella and game writing categories. Her debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, won Canada’s Aurora Award. She is a former journalist who lives near Ottawa, Canada.