Following on from my recent response to Damien Walter’s critique of interactive principles applied to traditional writing, here’s a fascinating—and arguably much better written—manifesto from former games journalist and now game developer Tom Francis, on what he is trying to do in building a game, and why and how.

computer gamesAs David Gaughran, whose tweet tipped me off to it, said, it has “some good advice for storytellers in general.” See if you agree.

Firstly, Francis rejects the cinematic approach:

“You can make a movie where people have to press the right buttons to see the next scene, but it’s hard, expensive, and spectacularly missing the point. These things count as ‘games’ in the same way that a wheel on a stick once counted as a ‘toy,’ and we’ll look back on them with same tragicomic pity. Games have the power to be driven by player interaction, and they can be complex and smart enough to generate fresh and amazing experiences in response to it. If you hamstring that to ensure the player gets a pre-packaged experience, you’re crippling this medium to make it resemble a less interesting one.”

(Something that many writers who work with an eye to film or TV rights could do well to consider.)

computer games
Tom Francis

Obviously, there are many things here that a writer can’t apply or needn’t worry about: creating games that are fun to learn, or that let the player choose the level of difficulty, for instance. But “games that feel good but still use your brain” and “games that value the player’s time” absolutely make sense. As does opposition to DRM: “Even if I had a non-futile way of doing it, anything that inconveniences actual customers is self-destructive and insane.”

And last but absolutely not least, excitement: “I want to make something that’s actually exciting—maybe not to everyone, but to someone,” Francis writes. “There’s a parallel universe here, and what I can do in it sets my brain on fire.”

Actually, this is the one point where I think his argument falls down, and then essentially on choice of words. What games need to be, in my opinion, is not so much exciting as absorbing. They need to weave an imaginative world so engaging that you want to stay there. That’s what the best games do. It’s also by no coincidence what the best films and novels do.

Learn to do that with enough conviction, and you’ll likely succeed in any of the above.


  1. Game structure and novel structure ARE NOT the same thing.

    I’ve talked to game designers who have written games based on novels, and they always focus on the world, not the characters, who are little more than stick figures allowed only certain attributes like the novel character and the same skill levels. The plot is very loose and allows the player to wander around within reason and goals are general, not the driving force within a novel.

    I can always tell when I’m reading a novel that some game-obsessed author has written because of the appalling sameness of the action. The plot line is a slowly ascending spiral of sameness rather than a fast linear progression.

    And, there’s a real reason “choose your own adventure” novels are primarily for kids. A novel like this written for adults is almost always silly and emotionally thin.

  2. “They need to weave an imaginative world so engaging that you want to stay there. That’s what the best games do. It’s also by no coincidence what the best films and novels do.”

    That may be true for some readers, but it’s not for every one. It’s a formula for sequels, series, tie-in, and franchise fiction. I’ve read many great books were I’d be uninterested in “staying there” and once I’m done I’m done and it’s time to move on to something new. Some books are worth a reread every now and then.

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