How to Earn the Ending

What writers can learn from video game developers

I have a vivid memory of sitting next to my childhood best friend on her plaid couch, watching her older brother conquer his most recent video game obsession. The game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, centered around a protagonist named Link, who must defeat Ganondorf, the evil ruler of a tribe that had taken over the kingdom of Hyrule. As with previous versions of Zelda, the game progressed through battles, but this edition also had a music-making element, as Link (and, by extension, the player) learned to play songs on a magical ocarina that conferred special powers.

It was the first video game that ever enthralled me, and we sat there for hours, watching the colorful, digitized mossy green and gold world unfold over the swirl of hair on my friend’s brother’s head. My friend’s mom would ask why we wanted to watch someone else play a game rather than play it ourselves. As a kid, I couldn’t explain.

Now, I’d be able to answer her question eloquently: I was drawn into the beauty of the design and the music, but was also entranced by a line of inquiry: what exactly was happening in this game? What monsters and characters lurked around the next corner? The game inspired trust: it was clear there would be a satisfying end to the story.

As an adult, I do occasionally play video games—mainly simulation games, a recent favorite being Untitled Goose Game—but I’ve never identified as a gamer. More than the games themselves, or actual gameplay, I find myself fascinated by video game psychology and culture. I’ve been known to binge-watch YouTube walkthroughs of games I can’t master on my own, like BioShock Infinite. And, as a nonfiction writer, I’m mostly drawn to storytelling games.

The connection between creative nonfiction and video games is one that feels obvious to me. After all, as in narrative nonfiction, the heart of the story in a video game must be carved out through hours, sometimes days, of engagement. Like memoirs, critically acclaimed games often require players to untangle a complicated internal terrain and grapple with character strengths and flaws. The ending must be earned.

Video game developers and marketers have spent a lot of time and money studying gamers and their motivations, and therefore have a strong sense of what compels gamers to choose one game over another. Quantic Foundry, a marketing company that specializes in collecting and analyzing “psychometric methods and data from over 400,000 gamers to develop an empirical model of gamer motivations,” divides their findings into the following categories and subcategories: action (destruction/excitement), social (competition/community), mastery (challenge/strategy), achievement (completion/power), immersion (fantasy/story), and creativity (design/discovery). Though their services and models are geared toward video game development professionals, their blog in particular contains a treasure trove of insights about how, where, and why we engage with games. Quantic Foundry analyzes demographic breakdowns by a variety of factors: gender identity, age, gamer skill level, the mindset of players who prefer male over female protagonists, and beyond. They point out discrepancies in how we define genres and gameplay (including the fascinating divide surrounding what “hardcore gaming” means). Visitors to the site can even take a quiz that will break down their “gamer motivation profile,” answering precisely what factors will pull them into a video game world (for me, it’s primarily story, fantasy, and design).

So what can all of this data and interpretation of gamer motivation tell us about creative nonfiction readers?

Video games often utilize the same tools we writers employ in narrative nonfiction: a tension, a quest, a line of inquiry, a sense of suspense, and, at the end, some sort of reconciliation if not satisfaction. As a writer and writing instructor, thinking about creative nonfiction as an interactive activity not only helps to ground my understanding of the reader’s engagement, but also helps me to home in on what’s important in my work: the questions motivating readers to turn the page, the stakes keeping them engaged, the knowledge they gain at the end that makes the reading worth it. It’s one thing to sit down and write a narrative about truths that are difficult and can only fit into a creative approach to nonfiction; it’s another to consider how, or why, a reader might want to discover those truths along with me. What motivates a reader to sit down and follow a writer’s tension and line of inquiry? And what can we, as writers, give our readers to create a sense of satisfaction (or perhaps dissatisfaction)?

 It seems to me that, especially when revising our work, we need to be articulating for ourselves what our readers might approach us for. Adventure and rule-breaking? A world they can build upon? A battle they can take part in alongside us? A work that allows them to create something?

Of course, readers’ motivations aren’t always obvious, and while gamers’ motivations may be distilled into categories, that doesn’t mean they may not seek a different genre of game sometimes. Reading and gaming are, at the end of the day, just variations of escapism and ways to control how we want to engage with the world. For example, some readers enjoy true crime creative nonfiction and video games because they enjoy the sight of blood and gore, or want to play out a violent urge of their own, but other true crime readers may be drawn in by the mystery or to learn more about a crime. As a reader, I love nonfiction mystery narratives that are told in creative ways—books such as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (which followed the author’s obsessive journey to identify the notorious serial rapist and murderer nicknamed the Golden State Killer) and Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson (a collection of poetry, found documents, and memoir fragments the author pieces together to come to terms with her aunt’s unsolved murder).

McNamara and Nelson both spin stories, but not just the facts about a crime; they present evidence as well as the experience of investigation. They invite readers to tag along, encountering clues while designing alternative stories of what might have happened. There’s even a dark fantasy element in the act of imagining these murder scenes. Grim as that might be, this forced act of imagination is key: what we envision is all the more horrifying because it’s based in unresolved mystery and loose ends. We’re left with possible answers, potential realities that cannot be confirmed or denied. (Both crimes were unsolved at the time of the books’ writing.) These are stories we can revisit and reconsider over time.

This is not to say that McNamara or Nelson edited with their readers’ tastes in mind, but rather that they had to have a sense of what might motivate readers to pick up their story among all others. One could argue that Truman Capote, a forefather of the true crime genre, framed his own work perfectly by calling his masterpiece In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel.” What began as an experiment to see if he could fit the reported story of a murdered family in Kansas into the structure of a novel set a precedent for an entire subgenre of nonfiction. By conjuring up the shape of a novel, he let readers know what to expect. The frame also provided a kind of distance from the brutal crimes Capote rendered, despite the controversies surrounding the liberties he may have taken while writing.

McNamara’s narrative expectations were less obvious—perhaps because she passed away before her manuscript’s completion—but the book was labeled an “obsessive search.” In many ways, she offered her readers just that: a window into obsession, both her own and that of the detectives still trying to solve the mystery decades later. She invited readers into a labyrinth of clues, tips, and red herrings, and theories ran like water. If I were to categorize the book as a game, its interactive features would be the means by which the narrative engages the reader as part of the team solving the puzzle and interacting with evidence (albeit indirectly).

If I apply this thinking to games I love, I can see overlaps. I love games that feature an unconventional mystery. I recently found myself hooked on Night in the Woods, in which the protagonist, a recent college dropout who committed a mysterious crime in high school, returns to her hometown. Upon her return, a disturbing new crime spree begins, which leads her to investigate who might be behind the violent attacks. While solving the crime is a satisfying task for the recent dropout, it is also the vehicle for the protagonist to make commentary on issues of class, education, and the way trauma colors how we relate to others. There’s some violence and blood, but it’s minimal and beside the point. The gameplay isn’t difficult, which leaves energy to focus on the larger ideas that inform the gameplay. The dialogue between the player and other game characters is witty, hilarious, sharp, and, at times, heartbreaking. The game’s developers have created a vivid, vibrant world where every character has a stake in the outcome. Playing the game, I felt as though the rich and complicated storyline was familiar narrative-wise, if not game-wise. In this way, Night in the Woods is not unlike a novella or a longer narrative essay. The game provides access to complicated tensions through a narrative thread.

These parallels aren’t necessarily by accident. We can’t assume that video games haven’t adapted storytelling strategies from narrative nonfiction. In fact, many video games are based on actual historical or autobiographical events in the video game developers’ lives. Take, for example, That Dragon, Cancer, which follows the experience of a family whose youngest son is diagnosed with terminal cancer. As a player, you’re forced to interact with this family’s story, but nothing you do will change the outcome: your son will still die. The game is based on developer Ryan Green and his family’s experience; he, his wife, and his children all voice their own characters. One could argue that this was the best, most engaging way to tell the truth of what losing a young son to a terminal illness is like: it forces you to go through the motions of being a parent to this child; it forces you to feel helpless, vulnerable, adrift. Even when the game delves into visual abstraction or fantastical imagery, what the player experiences via the game is the truth of Green’s grief. This is what the best art—in any form—can do: allow us to experience a feeling that’s grounded in something true, however troubling or difficult to grasp.

Creative nonfiction allows us to tell truths about ourselves that don’t fit neat categories. Isn’t that a version of truthful fantasy or escapism in and of itself? Creative nonfiction allows us as writers to be playful in how we divulge, interpret, and navigate truths. It allows readers a meaningful way to engage with how we see the world, which in turn only makes us more empathetic. But as writers, perhaps we can do more to classify what our readers’ experience with our texts might be. Can we be more specific about our searches, our obsessions, our quests? Are there ways we can acknowledge the mask we allow our readers to wear when reading our nonfiction so they can see the world the way we do? By thinking about how we package and label our own stories, we may be better able to reach our readers or, perhaps, articulate what we want to impart to them.

A few years after I entertained myself watching someone else play Ocarina of Time, I had the opportunity to play another chapter in the Zelda series for myself: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Like any successful epic, Link’s journey is never fully resolved in the Zelda franchise. In Majora’s Mask, Link has three days to save an alternate reality from a moon that is about to crash into the kingdom. This creepy, leering, pockmarked moon glares down at you from the sky as you play and inches ever closer. A unique feature of this installment in the Zelda series is Link’s ability to use masks to turn into other creatures and characters, taking on their powers to his advantage. Quite literally, the game asks the player to take on the role of someone else to save the world.

So what motivated me to save this hypothetical reality from an evil falling moon? The inquiry, the adventure, the surprises around every corner, yes—not to mention the chance to turn into someone else entirely for a while. But there was also this: as an anxious person who experiences panic attacks, I often feel as though the sky is falling. Panic attacks can feel as if the world is actually ending. I can easily draw comparisons between that feeling of anxiety and the way the inevitable disaster Link is trying to stop in the game lurks above him everywhere he goes. In some ways, the game wasn’t just an adventure or a chance to wage battle: it was a way to combat my own anxiety without real world stakes. If I lost, I could restart the game. All I stood to lose was my own data.

Writing—especially personal writing—certainly has higher stakes than this. But these higher stakes are what make all of the hard work worth it. If someone who feels alone in their experience can see themselves in my narrative, that is worth the vulnerability it takes to put the words down on the page. Writing nonfiction can save someone else who is waging their own personal battles.

What am I drawn to reading now? Personal essays that are story-driven and surprising and develop lines of inquiry about tensions that can’t be easily resolved. The ability to experience a life outside of my own in some way. The chance to sit with two truths that may appear to contradict each other. We can engage in escape while also engaging with reality, because one person’s reality can be an escape for someone else.

Readers may have different motivations for interacting with a work—different experiences and agendas. They might want a mystery, or they might want an adventure or, perhaps, a story of dismantling obstacles for good—but one way or another, they are going to have to perform an action. Something will be provoked. It’s up to them to decide what comes next. Writing nonfiction means giving someone else the opportunity to use your mask. Let them take a turn at defeating the moon.

About the Author

Sarah Rosenthal headshot
Sarah Rosenthal

Sarah Rosenthal is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at Columbia University, where she also serves as a teaching fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gay Magazine, Electric Lit, Lit Hub, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more.

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