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Teaching Classic Lit Helps Game Designers Make Better Stories

Release Date: March 2, 2021

By Cindy Frenkel

“THE LANGUAGE I’VE invented is pronounced with the same phonetics as Latin,” explained Justin Harlan, my 21-year-old student. He was doing a presentation on his video game Ordenai, which was so outstanding that it left my boisterous class speechless. 

This was in the fall of 2019, my first semester teaching Creative Writing for Video Gamers at Lawrence Technological University (LTU) in Southfield, Michigan. This was a class I created, with the help of other faculty, and a prerequisite for those majoring in video game design. Awestruck at the scope of Harlan’s game, I noticed several elements readily found in classic literature that were intimately woven into his story. This helped me realize that appreciating classic literature and art could enhance not only the creation of video games but the player’s experience as well. 

The first thing that wowed me about Harlan’s work was the intricate web he wove. He created an entire world, replete with 349 words of his invention, enough to string together full phrases, using every part of speech—although he explained, “Prepositions are sort of an outlier; only those with very specific meaning are in here.”  

Clearly influenced by the world-building in The Lord of the Rings, Harlan noted its ripple effect: Tolkien was influenced by The Odyssey, and he set out to tell epic stories in the style of the ancient Greeks. Once I connected the dots between Harlan’s game and other epics, I saw echoes of ancient literature repeatedly. In The Elder Scrolls series, the open-world fantasy RPG of Skyrim is an easy example. With its use of the hero’s calling, the player saves an entire continent. (We all eagerly await The Elder Scrolls 6, which I suspect will have a similar arc.)

The hero’s journey is often vital to a story-driven narrative, and I always teach the concept, regularly referencing Joseph Campbell’s work. The call to adventure was imperative. In Harlan’s game there are many such calls. “You start off solving local problems, then get noticed—and recruited by your king—and wind up fighting in a war, but then come to realize that there is a much greater conflict going on behind the scenes between two groups of cosmic entities, one of which is the Oredanai,” Harlan said. His maps are beautiful, and I was equally taken with his 35 complex spreadsheets. They categorized multiple monsters, enemies, and spells, among other things.

Classic literature has fundamental elements that reappear every day in video games, comics, and movies (think Wonder Woman—Diana’s father is Zeus). Sometimes they are deliberate, but often they are written subconsciously, because the building blocks of a great story remain the same throughout the centuries. In addition to the hero’s journey, there is the basic concept of the story arc, with its conflict and resolution. In classic tales you could read about the hero, but in video games, you can become the hero. It’s important to feel the story arc of the classics and see how those masters do it, so you can create your own compelling story and pull the player of your game into your own epic. Looking at dialog with memorable phrases helps, quotes about war, fate, and glory—or even classic individual lines, such as “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Colin Gill, another former student of mine, wrote a video game called Front United. His inimitable writing style coupled with vast historical research also impressed me. The game takes place in the summer of 1930. Gill is 21, the same age as the player character, whose parents were Manchurian tenant farmers before “they were worked to death by the occupying Japanese.” To escape such a fate, the character joins Mao’s People’s Liberation Army. Hiding in a farmhouse with other soldiers from an opposing Chinese army, they became allies, all with their myopic vision—“the enemy of the enemy is my friend.” Are Mao’s soldiers actually good? Gill dives into the perspective of a devoted soldier. This is good versus evil and, Gill added, “finding good in places we wouldn’t traditionally find it.” This classic war story has epic themes—and the fact that it is historical fiction makes it even more compelling. 

Whether you’re a game writer, developer, or you just love playing video games, the classics are the earliest and best way to learn how to tell good stories, ones that you want to return to over and over again, discovering new things within them, reflective of where you are in your life. 

My students know my passion for literature. Usually, my classes at LTU don’t exceed 15 students, so I really get to know them. Before this class, I loved teaching two required courses: World Masterpieces I and World Masterpieces II. The first began with the Epic of Gilgamesh, included Homer, the Tao, and went all the way up to Shakespeare—I usually taught Hamlet. World Masterpieces II, which was my favorite, began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and included Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, as well as Faulkner and Yoknapatwapha County, all the way up to the present day. Faulkner’s famous county was truly masterful world-building with memorable heroes and villains, so all the while I was teaching these classics, I was being prepared to teach newer ideas fused with older ones. 

Both courses included the visual arts, which, in retrospect, helped inform the trajectory of my current teaching. After all, without strong visuals, a video game would tank. I made sure to let students know, too, the story behind the stories—Mary Shelley’s personal life and how it influenced her work, beginning with her mother, Mary Wollestonecraft, and the brilliant feminist work she wrote. This also allows students to see that a work often is reflective of its times, and our society usually underpins the world they create. 

As in the parable of Jesus and the mustard seed, those books—the classics—helped seed the fertile field for storytelling in every form, including video games. To quote my former student Rachel Devine, “Building a game that players can relate to, with believable characters is imperative, and flawed characters are more relatable.” Devine referenced the hero’s journey and how it showed the development of the narrative arc in Star Wars Battlefront II. “The main character, Iden Versio, starts fighting on the side of the Empire—and thinks she’s fighting for justice and peace. Soon, she realizes she’s on the wrong side and winds up changing course. Although she doesn’t leave home in the traditional sense, she does leave the Empire and is transformed,” Devine told me. 

She reminded me how important it is to see the viewpoints of others with both respect and compassion. Even more importantly, I recalled the attributes a great leader needs to serve effectively, and the way Gilgamesh grew into a man worthy of true leadership, with empathy and genuine humility.

Devine, too, always had a drive to help others, and she admires that the Iden Versio character has the strength to take the leap and fight for what is right. Could a character’s choices in a video game influence the player so much that she made a life-altering decision? 

When I asked, Devine chimed in, “Absolutely!” Devine is 21, and she acknowledged that, although Iden Versio’s decision wasn’t the only factor for her, it was a main one in Devine’s decision to change her major. She saw how Iden Versio made a courageous choice, and that, in turn, helped fuel her own courage. Devine had been studying game design and is now going into cybersecurity. 

She enjoyed game development but felt the call to serve was larger. It makes sense that Iden Versio’s trajectory helped strengthen Devine’s resolve, much the same way Nora Helmer from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House continues to influence generations of women. 

Devine also noted that she developed a skill set from both her knowledge of designing video games and studying the classics that could be adapted to creating unique solutions for evolving problems in her new field. As Devine became the hero in a story she was still writing, a video game helped change her trajectory.

Cindy Frenkel's poetry collection, The Plague of the Tender-Hearted, was just released from Finishing Line Press.

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