Friday, June 08, 2018

6 Writing Lessons from Indie Games

Earlier this week, I mentioned how I rooted for the underdogs of media. It could be anything from a movie (such as The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which is disliked by many and didn't even make double the budget) to a game (like Skyward Sword or Spirit Tracks). It got me thinking: why do I like these things so much?

Now, I love gaming. But I also know not all of you are here just to read posts about video games. So I figured, "Why not make it a post about games and writing?" That's how this idea came into being. We're going to be looking at six indie games that are all very different from each other, but are similar in the fact that they can all teach us something.

left to right: OneShot, Undertale, Among the Sleep, Little Nightmares, Terraria, A Hat in Time

Before we delve into each title, I want to quickly chat a little bit about the indie game territory as a whole and what we can learn from it. It's interesting to note how crooked some triple-A developers have shown themselves to be as of late. We've got companies like EA making games like Star Wars Battlefront II (the 2017 version) pay-to-win and refusing to get rid of loot boxes, despite numerous states and/or countries comparing them to gambling and making them illegal. Bluehole wants to sue Epic Games, because they're miffed by the fact that Fortnite has taken over the battle royale genre in popularity instead of their own PlayerUnknown's Battleground. (Yeah, because you can copyright a bricking genre, and it's always a good idea to sue the company that created the engine your game runs on.)

Then we look at indie developers, and their story is usually quite different. Believe it or not, Minecraft started out as an indie game. However, through word-of-mouth, it became so popular that Microsoft bought it for $2.5 billion. Unknown Worlds Entertainment nearly went out of business a few times when they were making Subnautica. But thanks to YouTubers like Jacksepticeye, who bought and played the game in Early Access, the game gained popularity, and the developers were able to see their dreams come true. There are a number of indie titles, such as Undertale and A Hat in Time, that used Kickstarter projects to get enough finances.

For me, it's always cool to see when these underdogs make it to the top. That's not to say all indie games do; they tend to either be really good or really bad. But I think we can take note in the fact that bigger doesn't always mean better. Triple-A games aren't always the best. So just because we as writers may not get a famous publisher to put out our books, it doesn't mean our big break isn't coming. Take heart and keep doing what you love. Enthusiasm is catchy.

For indie games, it's also interesting to note that there's less . . . expectations, if you will. When you're a well-known developer, there can be a lot of expectations and criticisms from fans that you have to deal with. Smaller developers are often free to do whatever they want. I do want to note that this isn't always the case either way, but that's what seems to often happen. We have to remember to balance the two: take into consideration the suggestions of others, but make sure your project is still yours.

But let's take a closer look at the individual games and get one takeaway from each.


A child named Niko wakes up in bed, but he knows not where he is. The world is dark and unfamiliar to him. He eventually discovers that he can speak to you, the god of the world. You must guide him on a journey to save the land and restore the light by bringing the sun, in the form of a small lightbulb, to its rightful place atop a tower. There is no combat, only puzzles that must be solved. But if there is one thing to remember every step of the way, it is this:

You only have one shot. Succeed, and revive a broken world. Fail . . . and watch everything fall into an unforgiving darkness for eternity.

While I have yet to finish this game--and I'm doing my best to stay away from all potential spoilers--the thought of only being one shot to make things right intrigued me. Yes, the whole concept of the game being very aware of your presence also got me hooked, but it was the story that truly made me stay. And I do have to wonder: how will my choices affect the ending? I don't want to fail, but I fear that I might miss something and do so.

What we can learn: your story must have weight to it. If there is no gravity to the plot--if nothing the characters do have consequences--you shouldn't expect readers to stick around. But if you can show that actions have effects, including bad ones, they'll be hooked. Don't be afraid to make both the characters and the readers fear failure.


I could give a lot of writing lessons based on this game alone. Everything from how it makes you really think about consequences and how life doesn't give you a reset button, to the core themes and ideas of the plot, like mercy, determination, and the inner struggle between good and evil, would be interesting to talk about.

But as I mentioned in my review, something Undertale excels at is flipping the entire RPG genre on its head. It gives you the option to be nice to your foes and spare them. It even tricks you by calling them "monsters," something I'll eventually talk about in a full post.

If you go into it and act like it's just another fantasy RPG, you're going to be shocked. You'll either initiate the Genocide route, which tosses the two hardest boss fights at you just to make you change your ways, or you'll get a less-than-satisfying Neutral ending. The game punishes you for not giving any thought to your actions.

What we can learn: make your story unique. You might be writing a fantasy, a sci-fi, a contemporary romance . . . whatever genre you're dabbling in, find ways to shake things up. Subvert your readers' expectations. Your story can be different from the thousands of books that share the same category. Don't let the genre's name keep you boxed in. Dare to try something spectacular.


The hero of this game, a two-year-old who goes unnamed, is celebrating his birthday with his mother. He receives a gift from his father, who doesn't live with them anymore: a teddy bear by the name of Teddy (simple and straight to the point). That night, the child gets out of his crib and plays with Teddy, who happens to talk. But something else is in that house. A monster lurks, waiting to snatch the kid.

As the game progresses and the child goes on a frightening journey, there's a feeling that pervades everything. A feeling that everything here in this nightmare landscape has a double meaning. I don't want to spoil the plot, because it's quite interesting. Suffice it to say that the game tackles some tough, but real, issues through the eyes of a small toddler.

And that's the game's strongest point. With how everything is structured, it wouldn't make as much sense in anyone else's POV. But make a very young child with a whirring imagination experience all this, and it makes for a twisting turn of events.

What we can learn: think about who's watching your story's events unfold. How will things look if you change the POV from a courageous hero to a cowardly villager? What if the antihero provides the eyesight for your readers? How about the princess's bodyguard instead of the princess herself? Change the POV, and you might get an entirely different story, because how one person sees something will not be like how another sees it.


Six is a kid trapped in a dark, steel prison. Where she's locked away, kids like her are fresh meat for their massive captors. She must do all she can to get out--but what will it cost in the end?

That's the basic plot of the game, and it's hard to really say more. Why? Well, besides the spoilery reasons, there is no dialogue to be found here. Any story here is presented through characters and what they're doing. You have to piece things together.

So in a game where there is no conversations, you might be tempted to think that there's no real theme here. But there is, and it's a strong one told expertly throughout. It's all about hunger, and how far someone will go to satisfy that hunger. While shown through the lens of physical hunger for food, it can be easily interpreted for anything that people crave. Again, this is something I'd like to delve into fully in a separate post.

What we can learn: don't outright preach your theme. You can lessen its impact if you just talk about it. Weave it into the actions and motives of your characters. Be subtle. I didn't catch everything Little Nightmares was trying to tell me the first time I watched it being played. I had to watch it a couple of times to grasp the whole concept. Your readers aren't dumb, so don't act like they are. They can appreciate a story that makes them ponder.


How does a game with no plot whatsoever teach a writing lesson? All shall be revealed very shortly. You see, Terraria is a game that allows you to, essentially, do three things. You can choose to explore and nab materials, craft things with said materials, or fight bosses. Some people might find games that aren't story-driven boring, but I quite like this game.

One of my favorite things to do is crafting. I randomly decided the other day that I wanted to make a home in the snow biome. So I created a new character and a new world, and headed off to find the perfect location. I'm now working on my cabin/lodge, and it's really fun! I harvest all the right materials to make things such as windows, furniture, and the like, then find the perfect place for everything to make a cozy home.

That's not to say that mining by myself doesn't get tedious at times, but the end result is worth it. It's even more fun when you can play with a friend, like I have with Preston, to do stuff with. It just adds to the whole experience so much.

What we can learn: unleash your imagination in your story. The sky isn't the limit; heck, even space isn't! Your only limits are the ones you set on yourself. Everything you need is at your fingertips. Some things take time to hone and perfect, but you'll get there. Enjoy the journey and allow your creativity to roam freely. And hey, if there's a friend you can bring on the journey, don't pass up on that opportunity. Two hands are better than one.


The developer of A Hat in Time set out with one goal in mind: to right the wrong that was Donkey Kong 64. He believed in better platforming games and wanted to renew interest in them. However, the release date for the game fell in an awkward place. It was after the release of Yooka-Laylee, a platformer that wasn't received with glowing praise, and before the release of Super Mario Odyssey, a highly-anticipated platformer that could overshadow A Hat in Time.

Turns out, there was nothing to fear. Just check its Steam page, and you'll see it has overwhelmingly positive reviews to this day. Why is it so loved? There a number of factors, from great voice acting to phenomenal music. But I think it can be boiled down to the fact that it's very unique.

You see, the plot is episodic, and the worlds are all vastly different from each other. Mafia Town is the most "normal" one of the bunch, but you can't deny that Mafia with bad English and great accents are a great addition. It also introduces you to the villain, whose intentions really aren't all that bad. Battle of the Birds is all about making movies, and switches between things like a murder mystery on a train and an explosive game of follow the leader. Subcon Forest is where you lose your soul to a devilish fellow who has you do his dirty work for him--that includes fighting a possessed outhouse and sneaking through a very creepy mansion. Lastly, Alpine Skyline allows you to free-roam and explore mountain peaks in search for Time Pieces, which is what the plot is all about.

What we can learn: right place and right time are important elements in anything in life. But while these are things you should consider, don't get bent out of shape because of them. Even if the timing sometimes looks bad, don't give up. You have something unique to say with your story, so don't let yourself be overshadowed by other books. Your art will always have an audience.

That wraps up this writing lesson! What'd you think? Did you have a favorite takeaway, or one that you know you need to work on? Why do you think there are a lot of popular indie games these days? Is the same true on the indie book scene?


  1. Really interesting read! :D
    I like your idea from "Among the Sleep". I think it would be really cool to tell a story through the eyes of someone who wouldn't normally be the main character. :)

    p.s. - I'm glad you've helped me in Terraria right from day one (There's no way I would have been able to fight those bosses or even make it a few steps out of the house safely on my own). xD

  2. This was a lot of fun! And I wholeheartedly agree about indie games vs. the Big Names. These big publishing gaming companies don't always get...creative. My brother and I joke that they're made up of a bunch of old dudes that don't really know what the "kids" want. LOL. Because sometimes it FEELS that way. Games produced by a single person in their basement are often way more unique than the ones making millions from a big time company. Not always, obviously, but a lot of the time!

    Anyways! I've sadly never played any of these, but wow. They all look fun! Among the Sleep and Little Nightmares look especially intriguing and unique.

    I really liked all the wisdom you've gleaned from them. The advice you gave from One Shot is so, so important. If it's all easy for the characters, with no high-stakes and consequences, the story gets tiring FAST. We should be making our readers uncomfortable! Make them worried for the characters!

    Coming up with unique ways and perspectives can also MAKE a story. As can not limiting ourselves. And getting our message across in a subtle way is something that should be done more often! Way too many stories these days have their message shoved in our throats. Ugh.

    And that last bit of advice, about our art always having an That is SO true. It's always scary producing art, always worrisome that you might not do it at the right time or that there's time limits or you have to do it a certain way. But as you said, the sky isn't even the limit! Our art is ours to do what we want with it, and being as how there's BILLIONS of people in this world, we can always, always find people who like our art.

    Anyways, this is becoming one of my monster comments. But I just really love what you said about...everything! Haha. Thanks for sharing with us!