How a Disappointing Book About Video Games Led Me to Writing

I grew up on video games. I got my first game console, an Atari 2600, when I was five or six years old. Eventually, I graduated from Pitfall and River Raid to Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, and Final Fantasy, and I eagerly anticipated each new generation of consoles and games.

During those formative years, I also got my first exposure to computer programming. Naturally, I wanted to use this newfound skill to make my own games. Video games got me excited about computer hardware and software, which led me to college degrees in computer and electrical engineering, which led me to a job as a systems engineer.

All the while, I dabbled in game development. I experimented with various programming languages and game engines, but never as more than a budding hobby. I built a career and married life, content to let my dream wait. I’d get around to it someday, I was sure.

The Book That (Almost) Killed a Dream

In the summer of 2010, I read an article on a gaming website about Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. According to the article, the book conveyed how video games have become an important art form and why playing games is more than just a mindless waste of time. Intrigued, I bought a copy.

And I hated it.

Looking back, I understand that my harsh reaction was at least partially influenced by my own insecurities, an all-or-nothing attitude, and ruthless self-judgment. However, Extra Lives offered little insight into games as an art form and focused instead on fanatic gushing about the author’s favorite games. Interviews with game designers felt vapid, akin to an old Chris Farley SNL sketch.

SNL-Chris Farley Show
“You remember the time in that game when that thing happened? That was awesome.”

Worst of all, in the last chapter, the author gives an unnerving account of how he abandoned his career to do drugs and play video games. This story didn’t seem to be a cautionary tale, nor was it an inspiring account of how he climbed out of that condition. Instead, I concluded that by purchasing his book, I’d given him the means to pursue his addictions.

I felt betrayed, not just by the author but by gaming itself. Maybe playing games was just a pointless waste of time. Since I didn’t start cranking out A-list games as a teenager like many of the designers the book fawns over, there was obviously no way I’d ever create anything worthwhile. I’d missed my shot.

Game Over

Feeling completely discouraged and disillusioned, I quit games cold turkey. I stopped playing, stopped reading gaming news, and stopped creating. I deleted code and threw away notes. I probably would have destroyed or thrown out my consoles if my wife hadn’t stopped me.

For the first couple months, I disciplined myself to avoid anything related to gaming with an edge of resentment. As my anger cooled, however, I realized that I needed a new hobby to fill the void and keep me from missing games so much. I tried photography and piano, but they didn’t stick.

Then, an interesting idea came to me. What if I took one of my old game ideas, but instead of making a game, I just wrote the story? I started searching the Internet for resources on creative writing and discovered National Novel Writing Month. Luckily, I had missed a few game development notes during my purge, so I had a decent story idea ready to go.

However, I didn’t write that story. Inspiration struck me at the last minute, and I ended up writing the first draft of what would become my first novel, Separate Ways. But that other idea is still around, and I revisit it from time to time.

It’s the Story that Matters

As I delved deeper into writing, I realized that the games that meant the most to me were those that drew me into a compelling story. Sure, the quick-reflex action stuff was fun, but didn’t have the lasting emotional impact of say, Final Fantasy IV or Chrono Trigger.

In fact, Chrono Trigger (originally released in 1995) remains my favorite game of all time. Its story is perfectly executed, but I doubt it would have affected me as much had it been a movie or book. Something about playing the game brought me closer to the characters, their personal struggles, and the world they inhabited. I watched that world die along with the heroes, ached for their loss, and surged with determination as we decided, together, to somehow prevent the cataclysm.

Chrono Trigger - Death Peak
So. Many. Feels. (Seriously, I’m on the verge of bawling just pasting in this image!)

The feelings evoked while playing Chrono Trigger–and other games like it–are now the driving force behind my writing. Gaming didn’t betray me, nor did Tom Bissell. While I wouldn’t call my initial reaction to Extra Lives healthy, the book forced me to reflect and refine my interest beyond “I like video games, and I’d like to make one someday.”

Press Start to Continue

My hiatus lasted almost a year, and I returned to gaming with a fresh perspective. I never actually stopped loving games, but I needed a wake-up call. By tearing down my old expectations and giving my creativity room to grow, I became more passionate about what really mattered all along: storytelling.

Now more than ever, games are telling great stories. Whether it’s an action-packed title like Uncharted 4 or a quirky tour of Hell, strong narratives are allowing us to interact with new worlds and characters in deeper, more meaningful ways. I look forward to seeing what the future holds, and maybe even helping to make it happen.

In fact, I’m currently using StoryStylus to develop a game as a prologue for the novel I wrote when I quit gaming. How’s that for irony?