One of my earliest memories is sitting next to my father in the study room of my childhood house, watching him play a game called Betrayal at Krondor. He led a party of three through the high fantasy world of Midkemia, fighting monsters, gossiping at taverns, and unlocking treasure chests. In the Krondor games, the Moredhel wordlock chests were guarded by riddles such as this:
Though not a plant, has leaves. Though not a beast, has spine. Though many wouldn’t need this thing, ‘Tis more valuable than wine. (The answer is at the end of this post.)
I loved solving these riddles. My father knew this about me, and he let me unlock all the chests we encountered. I watched Pug, Gorath, and Owyn grow stronger as they gained experience through their journeys. Players could level up characters’ skills in anything from Defense to Haggling, and it was up to you to build your party in whichever way you liked.
Betrayal at Krondor was made in 1993 and based on the novel Magician by Raymond E. Feist. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was well into my 20s, that I would read Magician. Pug and Gorath felt like old, old friends when I did. This was my childhood: I was raised, in equal measure, by sword and sorcery. When I wasn’t reading David Eddings for the tenth time, I was at the computer building castles, mapping out mazy caverns, and talking dragons out of their treasures.
The earliest games I remember playing are the Might and Magic series, followed by King’s Quest, Heroes of Might and Magic, and the old role-playing game (RPG) classics: the incomparable Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights. I played them all multiple times. I still remember waking up in the dungeon with Imoen, watching Minsc break down when Dynaheir died, and outwitting the Reaper to defeat Mephistopheles himself. More recent series I’ve played and loved include Dragon Age, Ace Attorney, and Fire Emblem. I have played so many games over the course of my life I don’t know that I can list them all. I haven’t even started on my few forays into tabletop Dungeons & Dragons.
What games taught me about story, intuitively—perhaps more than all my reading—is that it’s about character. I played my favourite RPGs the first time through so I could meet all the characters and discover the story. I played them the second time, and third time, so I could build my character differently, take different forks in the road. What if I invested skill points in building a rogue instead of a fighter? What if I chose to side with the Circle of Magi instead of the Templars who sought to keep peace—by locking up the mages? What if I let Chrom deal the final blow to the fell dragon Grima, instead of sacrificing myself?
Much of game writing theory is focused on narrative agency, and placing it in the hands of the player. Your player gets invested in the game if they feel that their choices matter. At least, that’s the technical way of looking at it. The more nebulous side of the coin, the side that’s impossible to pin down yet just as critical—if not more so—is empathy. Having all the narrative agency in the world won’t enrich the player experience if they don’t feel for the character they’re playing as, and the characters they meet. Why should I care about the choices I make if I don’t care about my character? And I think the same goes for story as a whole, outside of games. The good news is, there is so much about being human that’s universal. Even if you don’t know it yet, you, too, have something in common with orphan dragonborn mages. Loneliness. Hope. Regret.
We’ve all wished there was a do-over button in life. A save and reload screen, where we could live out different realities, undo mistakes, make different choices. Games give us that option, and taught me from a very young age that there is no one way a story will pan out, because for better or worse, so much hinges on the choices we make. We write our own stories. That realisation can be both liberating and terrifying.
You and I, we’re not so different from RPG characters. We all enter life at level 0 with no skills in anything, and we fight through our first rats-in-the-cellar task with a rusty broadsword. As we grow up, we go on quests that grow ever more complex, ever more frustrating. Some quests just remain in your logbook forever because you never get round to finishing them. But along the way, you meet others, and maybe they’ll join your party, and maybe you’ll level up together.
The computer in my childhood home was next to the window, which overlooked a quiet road and a giant saga tree. We always had that window open. It got hot in the afternoons, as it always does in Singapore, but I like to think I got plenty enough fresh air, sitting there and watching my dad game. After all, I was far away in Midkemia, wandering through rolling fields unlike anything you’d find in Singapore. I was thrashing goblins, slinging fireballs, and unlocking puzzle chests. I was levelling up in imagination and empathy in a big way, much the same way I do reading a book.
Which, by the way, is the answer to the riddle at the start. Book.
Chen Cuifen was born and raised in Singapore where she now lives and works, having spent many years abroad in the UK and Australia. Her poetry has been published in Southeast Asian Review of English, while her fiction is forthcoming from Ethos Books/Margaret River Press, and her creative nonfiction in the journal Fourth Genre. In 2018, Cuifen was the first prize winner of the UK’s Troubadour International Poetry Prize. She is currently pursuing a MA in Creative Writing at LASALLE College of the Arts.
Read Cuifen’s first blog post, ‘Two Countries’.