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Pictured: A hard day’s work

This post is written as part of the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by the insightful Raimey Gallant. Anyone who’s interested in more exciting tips and thoughtful advice should definitely go and check out the main link, where dozens of other writers are sharing their words of wisdom on the third Wednesday of every month.


I spent most of yesterday playing video games. For work.

In honor of this – and to reassure myself that I wasn’t actually slacking – I thought that this month I’d share two games that help me outsource some of my creative heavy lifting. I’m not suggesting that anyone go out and buy them just for the sake of writing tools. Both of these games can get expensive, especially when you start taking bonus packs and DLC into account. But if you already have them, or something like them, it might be worth playing around and seeing if you find them helpful.

So, without further ado, I present:

civilization-5-cover-art

I’ve heard good things about Civ VI as well. I’m just slow and dislike change.

CivilizationThis game has been a go-to part of my writing process for years, and it has one very specific use: fleshing out the surrounding countryside.

Often as a fantasy writer, I’ll come up with a specific concept I want to use: one main conflict between a couple of distinct groups of people who have differing ideologies, political systems, resources, what have you. I have a lot of fun building those groups, their societies, their customs, even their geography.

But eventually, I just kind of run out of steam. After months of work, I’ll find myself with a lovely cluster of nation-states … and a void.

The problem is, of course, that nothing happens in a void. I could go into this whole thing about the role of mass migration and settlers, refugees and ‘imported labor’ in the development of American and Canadian national identity, but I think most people get where I’m going with this. Borders aren’t some kind of sacred, permanent thing. They move as people move, and nations rise and fall and consume each other, and they create scars in their wake that manifest in the pride and fears and values of the citizens they leave behind.

Trying to plan an entire world’s history for thousands of years, though, is exhausting and also pretty much impossible. And that’s where Civilization comes in for me. Once I know what nation(s) I want to start with, I pick a civilization that has as much in common with mine as I can find and try and play through a game, being as consistent as possible with cultural decisions, foreign policy, etc.

Often, my civilization gets destroyed pretty early on, because I’ve got unlucky city placement or I’m the only pacifist in a continent of wannabe dictators. When that happens, I start again, sometimes cheating to make sure that I start with the geographic features I want for my novel until eventually, I get a combination where my civilization can really take hold and start to grow.

And then I just watch what happens – not so much with my civilization, but with all of the others. Inevitably, while I’m trying to find all of the gold and horses in the land or desperately defend myself from unexpected naval attacks, there’s a whole other story playing out on the other side of the map. Countries I’ve never seen wage war, form alliances, annex city-states, and enter into complicated trade agreements. Most of them never directly touch my civilization … but every now and then an unexpected connection forms that I would never have expected, and I’ve been able to work them into my novel planning to create a much richer context than I’d have otherwise had.

Obviously, there’s a lot of hitting and missing here, especially depending on what technological level your work uses. You can get a lot of duds, and not every story benefits from placement in the wider world.

But I generally prefer to have the information and then choose to ignore it, and this is an easy (and fun) way to get some options without giving yourself a headache.

sims4

The Sims

This game has two distinct uses for me.

The first one mirrors Civilization in a lot of ways: it’s a great way to flush out some background characters – or even protagonists, if you’re stuck.

It works in a more general way than Civ, because you can’t really program your plot into the game so your characters are going to end up going off track fairly early on. I tend to think of it more as an alternate universe than a direct simulation. If my pre-industrial fantasy characters happened to live in a modern suburb with no magic, how would they interact? It’s a great way to come up with hobbies, dislikes, and torrid romantic side-plots, and I find that even watching a Sim do everything wrong can still help me figure out what the character should be doing in that situation.

The other thing that the Sims has is build mode.

I struggle with visualization. I’ve never been very good at holding specific images in my head, so I risk getting very vague in my writing. To combat this I look for reference images; each of my characters has a real person as a base, often an actor so that I can get a bunch of different images of them in a wide variety of situations, with a wide variety of facial expressions and body language. I borrow visual references for locations and buildings as well, when possible, but it can get really hard to find an image of the medieval castle you’re imagining. Even in the urban fantasy novel I’m writing right now, I couldn’t find a perfect duplicate of the apartment where my main character lives or the office building where I’m setting a fairly comprehensive fight scene.

So I built it!

Plaza Ground Floor

Pictured: Before

Obviously, the game has limitations. You can’t overlap objects, you can’t have more than one elevator on a lot, and the Sims 4 at least doesn’t have any pool tables. But it’s not bad for getting a sense of what’s where, how many doors or windows a room has, and what would happen if a character – hypothetically – got thrown through the lobby wall and landed in the shop next door.

Plaza Garage

Pictured: a lot of things that can explode. And a parking garage.

Building out settings can also give you options you didn’t know you had. The entire underground level shown above came about because I realized that I wanted there to be parking and I hadn’t left any room for it. And then since I had a basement, it probably made sense to put some of the maintenance things down there, a boiler room and probably an electrical room of some kind too … maybe? Where, like. The fuses live?

There’s a reason I’m a writer, not an engineer.

Either way, by the time I was done using basic logic to fill in the gaps, I had an entire other floor for my characters to play around in. I may not use it, but it helps the building feel more real than when it consisted of “a lobby, with elevators, that go up and probably down, and a sculpture of some kind, or maybe a fountain”.

As an end note, I feel like there are other games that could be useful in other ways. Open world sandbox games like Skyrim or GTA could probably serve as a way to get to know a protagonist if the setting was close enough to what you’re doing in your story. Assassin’s Creed is great at providing a running-climbing-fighting environment, and it could probably be helpful for planning out fight scenes, especially against large groups of low-level enemies.

And if anyone has any other games they use, please let me know in the comments! I’m always interested in new ways to shift my workload. 😀