Playing Through Narrative: Screenwriting Lessons Learned from Indie Games

If you’re an indie screenwriter looking to improve your craft, you may find some inspiration in indie video games. Almost every indie game that I’ve played recently has left me totally stunned by the innovation of the narrative, something that I haven’t necessarily felt with recent indie films. Don’t get me wrong, there have been several excellent indie films over the past couple of years that I’ve fallen in love with - Lady Bird, Kedi, and Moonlight all stole my heart and my friends are sick of me talking about The Witch - but I just haven’t found myself as excited about recent indie films as I have about indie games. There’s something new, inventive, and often disturbingly creative emerging from the indie game industry. If you’re an indie screenwriter, you should be paying close attention to these games, because they’re revolutionizing narrative, perspective, and character in a way that film has yet to explore.

Writing Past Visuals

A common theme in indie video games is low-resolution graphics, which doesn’t necessarily mean that indie games have poor art design or modeling; low-resolution graphics games usually don’t use 3D and are most often constructed out of 8 bit to 64 bit sprites and environments. This pixelated visual aesthetic has become somewhat of a trope for indie games - it’s even become a searchable category on Steam - but it also stems from a place of frugality and time management. While the pixelated graphics aesthetic can be very charming and nostalgic for players, it is objectively easier and cheaper to accomplish than the expansive 3D graphics of AAA games such as Fallout 4 or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Most indie games, like indie films, are made for very little money and by a very small team of people (sometimes only a single person), so by working less on intricate visuals, indie games are expected to put a greater emphasis on story or player experience.

 Flowey, an antagonist from Toby Fox's  Undertale .

Flowey, an antagonist from Toby Fox's Undertale.

While indie film has a glimmer of this aesthetic-quality problem, in the film industry, it only extends to visual effects. I’ve seen student films shot for a couple of hundred bucks that look as good as wide-released features; it’s just a bit easier to shoot a beautiful film than it is to make a beautiful game. Thus, part of the reason why the writing in indie games has blown past the imagination of writing in indie films is that indie games have had as much expected of them with fewer aesthetic resources. Take Undertale, for example, a pixelated art indie game that has grossed over $10,000,000 in a little over two years and was created almost entirely by one person, Toby Fox. I remember people absolutely losing their minds over the writing in Undertale when it came out, and it’s easy to see why; Undertale expertly mixes humor with melancholy, parody with horror, and whimsy with suspense while still feeling like a cohesive game. Plus, it presents the player with a sympathetic player-character, great NPCs, and a rather unexpected and terrifying villain named Flowey.

The limitations offered by the indie game movement as well as the the saturation of indie games in the market has made game writers think more imaginatively and create games that push the boundaries of what a game can be, what narrative constitutes, and even how many genres can exist within one work.

Breaking the Fourth Monitor

Doki Doki Creepy Glitch.jpg

While I’m writing this article, I’m still reeling from the experience of playing Doki Doki Literature Club!, an indie visual novel that uses dark comedy and horror to parody Japanese dating simulators. The game begins as any normal dating sim - as the player, you control a desirable high school boy who is trying to decide which cute girl he wants to attempt to form a relationship with. The game progresses in this traditional fashion for about two hours before it descends into sinister, metaphysical madness. (Spoiler alert for Doki Doki!) In short, a character within Doki Doki! starts to realize that she’s in a video game and begins rewriting the code to suit her own desires. She can even create and delete files on your actual computer system. It’s crazy and creepy, but most importantly, it makes you, the player, feel like the game is encroaching upon your own reality.

While most of us have seen films or TV shows that break the fourth wall (Annie Hall, House of Cards, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, etc.), none have ever done it quite like Doki Doki!. The game doesn’t just stop at breaking the fourth wall; it punches through your monitor and yanks you into the game itself. Another indie game released this year, OneShot, uses a similar technique to make you as the player feel like you’re an integral part of the game. In OneShot, you control the main character, Niko, but you do not play as her; instead, she looks to you as a deity and trusts you implicitly with her life. She even calls you by name, making for a deeply interactive game that not only affects your feelings as a player, but also makes you care more intensely for the character whom you control.

In terms of indie screenwriting, Doki Doki Literature Club! and OneShot illustrate ways to expand the function of breaking the fourth wall. Instead of simply having characters express their emotions and thoughts in an aside to the camera, they could push against the literal edges of the frame, try to break past those edges into viewers’ own comfortable reality, or even acknowledge viewers directly as spectators, making them an actual part of the cinematic experience.

Ending After Ending After Ending (Repeat Ad Infinitum)

A particular trend in recent gaming has been the multiple-ending game, one in which every decision a player makes affects the final outcome of the video game. While the multi-ending narrative has been around since the 1980s (one of the first was The Portopia Serial Murder Case), it has recently become extremely popular, extending from AAA games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to indie games such as The Stanley Parable. Many gamers (myself included) love the feeling that they are actually influencing the world of the game, and multiple endings makes smaller-budget video games more replayable. While it’s not possible (yet) for films to have interactive, multi-endings in the same way that indie video games can, the lesson from the writing of multiple endings is still valuable for indie screenwriters.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about multi-ending games, is the amount of planning that has to be done in order to determine how certain actions will affect the overall outcome of the game. Not only do the writers need to know their story backwards and forwards, they also need to know every character, NPC, environment, subplot, and interaction that the player experiences throughout the game. Then, the writers need to decide how the absence of one character, one interaction, or even something as small as one snowball will change the narrative. Indie screenwriters usually don’t know their filmic world in such detail simply because they don’t have to - they may know their narrative and characters outside and in but not necessarily what would happen if this or that element of the narrative were to be changed. However, I think it is useful for indie screenwriters to participate in this kind of narrative exercise simply for them to gain a better understanding of the limits of their created world, their character motivations and desires, and what supposed changes to their script could do to enhance their story.

Consider, for example, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, which is perhaps one of the strangest, best, and most unexpected films I have ever watched. It seems to me that Kaufman’s script is the best reflection of video game writers’ tendency to ask the question “what if?” in a film. First, Kaufman might have asked “what if I make a film about the difficulty of making a film?,” which makes Adaptation unique and unexpected. Then, he may have questioned “what if I give myself a twin brother?,” which adds a layer to his protagonist’s motivation to write a great script. Kaufman continues asking this question “what if?” throughout his film, which is what makes Adaptation one of the most unusual films I have ever seen. Even within the film Adaptation, we see the protagonist questioning how to construct his narrative and what can happen within it, going through possibility after possibility, even when those possibilities are totally ridiculous. In the indie video game industry, writers continually ask the question "what if?" and so have created dozens of wonderful games each as unexpected and unique as Kaufman’s Adaptation. Giving their scripts the "what if?" treatment may help to lead some indie screenwriters  to more interesting and unexpected narrative avenues.

While indie films and indie video games cannot and should not be written in the same manner, there is much that the two can take and reshape from one another. Most of the indie gamers I know also watch a good deal of indie films, but I can’t say that the opposite is usually true. Many people who value film over video games simply have not given the latter a fair play as a true artform and have only just scratched the surface of what a video game can be. While a simple, well-written movie can be just as satisfying as the most convoluted narrative-driven video game, there is room for indie screenwriters to push through the frames of their craft. Perhaps by playing more indie video games, auteurs and indie writers can discover new and unique ways to tell their stories in film.