Interview: Author Dean Koontz On Storytelling & Gaming

interview dean koontz storytelling in gaming

It's probably a safe bet that game makers' fascination with narrative will remain a fixed obsession in the video game industry for some time to come. This desire to tell complex and emotionally engaging stories while retaining quality gameplay has been met with mixed results. So a few weeks ago, I wrote an article advocating the use of more novel-to-game adaptations as the means to better character development and coherent storytelling in gaming. I also decided to get some advice from the experts themselves.

So without further ado, New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz talks to Game Rant about character development, the advantages that video games have over other forms of media, and the necessity of morality-driven player choice.

Do you ever play any video games? If so, is there a system you prefer to play on? What are some of your favorites?

Six days a week, I get up at 5:45 a.m. shower, walk our dog, Anna, and fully wake up about the time I'm securing her poop in a blue bag. By 7:00, I've read the financial newspapers and had breakfast at my desk. Then I begin to write fiction and some nonfiction for ten hours. I never have lunch. That amounts to 60-hour weeks, but it can easily go to 70-hours and longer in the final month or six weeks of a project. I quit at 5:00, and evenings are spent with Gerda, my wife, and with Anna, sometimes with friends. I'm in bed by ten. This is not a glamorous life but it is a busy one. We have an arcade in the bottom floor of our house, with old pinball machines--Haunted House, Eight Ball Deluxe, and Old Chicago--and with one two-seat console player loaded with 8 classic games, so once in a while, not often, I get half an hour to slip into the arcade and play Ms. PacMan. If I ever retire, I might become totally game crazed--but in my experience, most writers retire  only when they fall dead facefirst into the keyboard.

What do you think about narratives in video games?

I think when someone figures out how to design a layered narrative with rich characters and fulfilled themes without inhibiting game play, it will revolutionize the industry, and that person will become not only stinking rich but a legend. Right now, what passes for narrative in gaming is far from true and engaging storytelling.

How do you develop characters in your novels? Could the same process be used to develop a character in a video game?

When I discuss character creation, I get weirdly mystical, and people look at me as if I've been Shirley-MacLained. I start writing with a general idea about a character's nature, a little bit about his past, and then I give him or her free will. If the character comes alive, he reveals layers far more complex and deeper than any I could have planned to give him by starting out with a character profile or chart or set of index cards listing his traits and preferences. As I write, the character constantly surprises me--and therefore, I hope, surprises the reader--and he becomes as fully formed as a real person. Some might say that in this process the writer is tapping his subconscious to structure the character, that a kind of unconscious ordering is occurring akin to the hidden order under every chaos in nature. That might be partly true, but it's not entirely the case. I have often found a character revealing a knowledge of some area about which I myself know little. I'll let him narrate his scene, let him say what he wishes, as long as the prose is flowing, and when the scene is done, I turn to research to find out what the facts are in those matters to which the character has referred--only to discover that what he had to say was accurate. In instances like this, something much more than my subconscious is in play--call it a universal creative consciousness or call it God. In any case, it's eerie. So can this technique of character creation be used in video games? Damn if I know!

Would you be at all interested in writing the script for a video game?

Nope. I'm just smart enough to know where my talents do not lie. I am never going on "Dancing with the Stars," either, nor am I going to attempt brain surgery.

What are some advantages that novels have over games as far as storytelling is concerned?

The biggest is that novelists stand on the shoulders of many centuries of storytellers who came before them, and the various forms--short story, novel, narrative poetry--of fiction, the myriad genres, and the techniques developed by generations of writers offer a vast tool chest to any contemporary writer. The video game  is by comparison a recent form and has only begun to build the traditions that are and will be peculiar to it; but build them it surely will.

What are some lessons that games could learn from books?

When you reach my age, what you remember most clearly of all forms of entertainment over your ginormous lifespan were those that had the most profound emotional impact on you. Books, movies, music whatever--it has to touch the heart and the soul if it is going to live long in the mind. Most games have a long way to go to sharpen their emotional impact.

Are there any particular advantages that video-game narratives may have over other forms of media?

Other forms of storytelling offer intellectual and emotional  involvement. Games do, as well, but they also offer physical participation in the unfolding narrative, and that is a very powerful thing.

What is your opinion of gaming in general?

It's fun. It sharpens reflexes and shortens response time to crisis stimuli--which is a good thing whether you want to have a career in military special ops or juggle knives in a circus, or work on a bomb squad. When this world gets too ugly, games can be a welcome bit of anesthesia to help us through the pain. However, unlike books or movies, anything with a gaming aspect, when there is the potential to be a winner or loser--whether it be video games or cards (and I'm a card player)--has the potential to become an obsession because it strokes that sensitivity spot in us that you might call the awareness-of-fate button, which is a highly erogenous little mental glans. From the most primitive to the most sophisticated levels of our psyche, we are fascinated by fate, by the sense that we can't control our destiny, a sense that is always balanced by an intuitive perception that, dammit, yes we can shape our destiny, chasten fate, and learn the secret of luck. This dramatic dynamic, the push-and-pull between the fear of fate and the equally superstitious conviction that luck can be controlled, is as intoxicating as any distilled spirits. Living on the edge of chance is perhaps more exhilarating than terrifying. It is the cause of degenerate gambling in Vegas. It was the cause of dorm-room class-cutting pinochle marathons that sometimes went twelve or sixteen hours when I was in college. And it can cause a video-gamer to become as addicted to a game as to any illegal substance. Fortunately, most of us have a dead-man's switch in our brains which automatically turns off this kind of engine of self-destruction before we go hurtling completely off the rails. Those for whom games are an all-consuming obsession are probably no greater a percentage of game players that degenerate gamblers are a percentage of recreational gamblers in general. I once knew someone who so thrilled to the risks of sky-diving that he worked like a fiend to make enough money to take a sabbatical from work, for the sole purpose of diving multiple times every day for a year. That's a whole lot more obsessive than any gamer I've ever known!

In a previous article, I expressed interest in a COLD FIRE video game. Many games rely on cookie-cutter "white-gray-black" choices, but a game based on COLD FIRE could make players' choices more ambiguous. For example, if you can only do one, do you save a family of five from a house fire or do you stop a runaway school bus? Do you think that player choice is a hindrance or a help to storytelling?

I think complex and nuanced choices for the player is essential if video gaming is ever to become an art. What separates this form of narrative from others is its participatory nature, and therefore that aspect lies at the heart of its potential. The more that the player makes choices--not just from potential actions, not just from potential strategies, but also from a spectrum of moral alternatives--the more elegant this form of narrative will become.

Which, if any, of your novels would you like to see as a game?

Many of them might work. There was a time when we seemed close to making a deal for an Odd Thomas game, but then the wizards of smart in Washington blew up the economy, and suddenly no one wanted to take the risk of putting up the development money for a game from such a quirky book.

How do you feel about gaming as an art form? Is it an inevitability or a pipe dream?

I have no crystal ball. Gaming's potential is huge. But potential is not always--or even often--fulfilled in anything. For instance, I would say that at some point in its history, film became an art form--but is currently in the process of becoming the carnival curiosity that it was in its earliest days. The number of films that could--without snickering--be called true art has declined drastically over the past ten years.

Last but not least, do you have plans for a third Christopher Snow book and will we ever see a Lightning movie.

I do hope to finish Ride the Storm, the third Chris Snow, within the next two or three years. Every once in a while, someone in the movie business comes around, asking about Lightning, but I've yet to find one who has such an understanding of the story's paradoxes that I would trust him with the film rights. Generally, I run them off with a shotgun or sic the crocodile on them.

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