Friday, 5 August 2011

Guest Post by Jack Heath (Author of Money Run)

Last month I published my review of Money Run by Jack Heath, one of the most enjoyable reads for me so far this year. At the end of that review I promised that a guest post by Jack would be featured on The Book Zone during August, and here it is.


Writing for the video game generation

Most of the authors I've met have no interest in video games. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the practical (those who devote their lives to literature usually don't have room for much else) to the demographic (based on my observations, authors are usually women aged 35 and over, and while games are less and less exclusive to teenage boys, we haven't reached equality just yet).

I've never had a problem with the idea of video games as works of art. As a child I noticed that Metal Gear Solid (a game which significantly influenced the plot of my first novel, The Lab) had a story far more original and stimulating than most of the movies I'd seen. I do, however, have a problem with the notion that games are responsible for a worldwide decline in literacy. If, as writers, we accept that we're losing our readers to games, then maybe we should also accept that games are offering something our books are not. So are we going to wring our hands and ask what the world is coming to? Or are we going to write differently, focusing on the things books can provide and games cannot?

If you're wondering what those things are, fear not. I think I've got it figured out.

Three of the five senses

Immersive as games are, they can only show the player how something looks, and how it sounds. They cannot describe taste, smell or – despite the best efforts of motion-control creators – touch. It's more crucial than ever before to include these sensations in novels, so that readers really feel like they are present in the story. (I once fainted while reading a particularly gruesome scene in The Cleaner by Paul Cleave, and then vomited later when recalling it. Violent as video games can be, I've never had such a visceral reaction to one.)

A well-rounded protagonist

Usually, the main character of a game is paper-thin by necessity, because their actions are dictated by the player's motives, not their own. With some notable exceptions (such as the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid series) the protagonist has little personality and, in many cases, none at all – Gordon Freeman, hero of the mega-selling Half-Life franchise, has not a single line of dialogue. This may not bother a player, who remains emotionally invested in the character's fate because it is, in a sense, their own. But it will fatally bore a reader (and you don't want that on your conscience).

Writers should fight to make every character as fascinating and distinctive as possible. Gone are the days when a novel's protagonist can be a hollow shell for the audience to live vicariously through. Sorry Bella Swan, sorry Harry Potter – to turn gamers into readers, you'll have to offer something more. (I enjoyed the Harry Potter novels, but Harry was the least interesting character in them. Severus Snape would have made a better protagonist.)

A strong voice

None of Raymond Chandler's novels would have made an interesting game. The ingredients are right – danger, violence, cars, weaponry – but they're not what is good about the books. A video game based on The Big Sleep could only show an old man nodding, but the book can tell you he “nodded as if his neck was afraid of the weight of his head.” Similes, metaphors, unusual choice of verbs – competing with video games is less about the story and more about how it's told. As Chandler himself said, “Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.”

A varied journey

Players don't like having to learn a new set of controls every few levels, and game designers don't like having to build ten different gameplay engines for the one release. This is why most games fit into only one or two of the following categories: fighting games, shooting games, platformers, sandbox games, driving games, flying games, puzzle games. A novel can blend all of these elements together without slowing the reader down. Quite the opposite – the variety will spur them on, as your protagonist runs, shoots, jumps, drives and flies through the story. The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz is a textbook example of how to use this freedom to great effect.

Big-budget adventure

It costs a hundred times more to make a game than it does to make a novel. That's not a made-up number: it cost $40 million to make Modern Warfare, and it only took $40,000 to write Clear and Present Danger. (Okay, that is a made-up number, but Tom Clancy probably pays himself an annual salary for tax purposes, and that's the sort of figure a sensible businessman might choose.) Novelists can throw in new characters, new locations, new gadgets and more, without having to pay for animation and rendering.

Experimental structure

Games are extremely conservative. Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem were all fundamentally the same game. Fifteen years later, we have eight Call of Duty games and ten Battlefield games, all of which are almost indistinguishable from one another. Because games are so expensive to make, no-one is willing to take risks – instead, they copy previous successes until the formula stops selling.

Books have a huge advantage here. As a writer, you have the freedom to try something completely new. Karen McLaughlin's gender-bending novel Cycler might have made an excellent video game, but no developer would have dared to pay for it.

So make a book in which the chapters go from last to first. Give every character the same name. Start halfway through a sentence, end on a cliffhanger. If your novel is a rampaging success, great. If no-one buys it, you've lost nothing except the time it took to write.

Remember this when you're working on your next book. Game makers are limited by their investors, their budgets, their hardware. You are limited only by your vocabulary.


Huge thanks to Jack for writing this fantastic guest post. If your son (or daughter) loves fast paced, full-on action stories then Money Run is the must-read book for them this summer.


  1. Absolutely! How refreshing to see a writer for younger students who GETS what kids want! This title is not available in the US, but I may have to find a copy. UK authors do a MUCH better job at identifying why children like to read!

  2. Thanks for the comment! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Money Run isn't available in the USA yet, but two of my other books are - The Lab and Remote Control. Perhaps your students might enjoy them. Thanks again!

  3. Except Jack is Australian... Yay for us