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Worlds Within Worlds – Part One: Writing a Good Game into a Good Book

Evacuation by Franz VohwinkelHumanity has played games for as long as we’ve been able to make up rules and keep score. As we’ve developed as a species, we’ve created thousands of games, and gaming isn’t just something we do out of boredom. In many ways, games are a survival mechanism, a way to recharge our brains and spirits. They add fun to an existence that over the centuries has been cold, unforgiving, and downright brutal.

It’s no surprise, then, that many of our favorite sci-fi and fantasy books about dire threats incorporate games into their narratives. Whether those games are played for the entertainment of the masses (Quidditch from Harry Potter, Ja’La from The Sword of Truth), used as training devices for future solders or wizards (welters from The Magicians, the Battle Room game from Ender’s Game), or exist primarily for the entertainment of individuals (OASIS from Ready Player One), they end up being big parts of the book’s narrative and, quite often, just as fun to read as the protagonist’s fight against the dire threat.

So what distinguishes a fictional game we all wish we could play from a fictional game we don’t even remember when the book ends? Ultimately, a memorable and interesting fictional game follows the same rules as the most popular games that actually exist. If you’re looking to create your own fictional game for your own fictional world, understanding what makes real games so compelling is vital.

Rule 1: Your Game Must Be Easy to Understand

Dice by Hector OrtizThis is the first and most important part of any popular game: clear rules. You need to ensure the reader can easily understand how your game is played, but never bog them down in boring details. In the best fictional games, your reader will try to guess your protagonist’s next move as they read, because they know how your game works. Your reader must have a good understanding of the paths your protagonist can take before they’ll understand (and cheer) when your protagonist makes a clever choice.

If, after reading about your protagonist’s win or loss in a fictional game, the reader doesn’t understand why they won or lost, your game will feel abstract and meaningless. It’s like watching a baseball game without having any idea of the rules. Sure, you might know who won, but you won’t understand why.

Rule 2: Your Game Must Allow Upsets

The best stories about games are stories where the protagonist’s loss seems inevitable, and then they win by executing an exceedingly clever, risky, or lucky move. Your game needs to allow last minute comebacks. Tying into Rule 1, you first need to make sure your reader understands why and how your protagonist was able to pull off this last minute reversal, so when they do, it’s a memorable moment.

To give you two common examples, Monopoly wouldn’t make a good fictional game, primarily because there are few good ways for a losing player to recover. Once the dominant player has seized enough property and obtained enough money in Monopoly, there’s very little the losing players can do to defeat them. They can just quit, or continue to slowly lose. That doesn’t make a very interesting story.

Leroy's by Happy-Mutt

By comparison, traditional eight-ball pool (or billiards, for our UK friends) has a number of mechanics where the loser can become the winner in almost no time at all. It’s possible for a person to play terribly, missing every shot until the end, and then stage a miraculous comeback at the last moment where they “run the table” and sink the 8 ball. Similarly, there’s even the chance for the protagonist to luck out and be granted a reprieve in a dramatic twist. If their opponent almost runs the table, but then sinks the 8 ball early (by accident) the losing player just won, even though it seemed they were doomed.

Obviously, neither Monopoly nor pool are terribly fun to read about, but they demonstrate Rule 2. If there’s no way for the losers to stage a dramatic comeback at the last moment and turn the tables, there’s not really a lot of opportunity for you to tell a dramatic or interesting story about your game.

Rule 3: Your Game Must Be Accessible

Wheel of Fortune by Unknown ArtistBy accessible, I mean you must convince your readers they could actually play your game (assuming, of course, they were a person in your fictional world) and win it all, given the opportunity. Accessibility is why older games like Wheel of Fortune have held up so well, and why more recently televised games like have become some popular. These games are simple enough that we all feel we could play them (Rule 1) and because we understand how to play (and win!) we often eagerly play along vicariously as we watch contestants. We want to play these games, and we know we could win.

Just as the most interesting fictional worlds make us wish we could live there, the most interesting fictional games make us wish we could play them, and keeping your game accessible is a great way to do that. While the idea of three-dimensional chess might seem interesting, at first glance, it’s rather difficult to explain the rules in a non-confusing way. It’s even harder to tell the story of a fictional three-dimensional chess match that is not boring or confusing, and to make your readers want to play one.

Final Thoughts

These rules are not everything that makes a compelling game, and when it comes to fictional games, talented authors have written plenty of them that don’t follow all these rules. A game can still be memorable if the prose is good and the circumstances in which it’s played are sufficiently dramatic. Yet considering the rules that make real games fun can improve any fictional games you devise, and considering how much work you’ve put into the rest of your book, why skimp on the gaming parts?

Ready Player One - Lich King Challenges Wade by jdelgado

It’s because I could imagine myself executing squad tactics in Battle School or playing Joust against an ancient lich in Ready Player One that I so enjoyed reading about those fictional games. It’s why my memories of those gaming scenes stick with me despite having long ago finished those books. I love gaming of all types, just as I love books, and if you manage to combine both, you’ll hook me every time.

Title image by Franz Vohwinkel.

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3 Comments

  1. Ritika says:

    Hi,

    Can you suggest some books with based in interesting game premises which are not set in a dystopian world.

    Thanks

  2. T. Eric Bakutis says:

    Actually, one of my favorite fictional games is in the Apprentice Adept series by Piers Anthony (the first book is called “Split Infinity”). There are two parallel worlds, one based on science and one based on magic, and in the science world, they have a competitive sport known as “The Game”. There’s large portions of the book where the protagonist is playing “The Game” against others, and the entire set up is fascinating, from a tic-tac-toe-esque intro that determines the rules to actually playing the resulting game itself. Every game is different, and they’re played on something very similar to a holodeck. It’s a really neat premise and one that sticks with me even after all these years.

  3. Ritika says:

    Thanks will try this out.. sounds intriguing.

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