Backstory is Important, and “Dishonored” Does it Right

Whenever Zach decides to play a video game, I watch it as a writer and an editor because I enjoy picking apart how it was done and how I would adapt it as a novel. The chances of me actually trying to adapt anything to a novel are slim, but it’s a fun exercise nonetheless.

Something I feel video games tend to lack is backstory—either because the writing actually lacks it or because the backstory isn’t brought into the story enough for it to feel like it properly exists. The best exception to this is “Dishonored.”

If you’ve played it, then you know what the Heart is. If you haven’t, the short description is that the Heart is used to help guide the player to runes—items used to upgrade the player—but can also be used to learn more about a place or person.

Since Zach had played the game before, I didn’t know about the Heart’s latter function until his third or fourth play through at our apartment. When I learned about it, I had him press it on each person and in each location to learn more about the way the world’s backstory worked.

Before the Heart was giving information, the world already felt alive. Characters obviously knew other characters in the world, even if the player didn’t know them, and the politics that drive the story didn’t feel forced. This is important because it means the backstory was already well-made and presented to the player in ways that were natural even if the player wasn’t searching for backstory.

After the Heart gave information, I was astounded by how large the world was. Information given by the Heart wasn’t created for the sake of giving the Heart a second purpose; that information already existed from when the writers were making the world.

What’s more, most of the information given would have been impossible to know without the Heart’s power to inform. The world of “Dishonored” went from believably alive to the story barely scratching the surface of what’s there.

While the Heart isn’t something possible for every medium, it could certainly prove to be an interesting writing exercise if your world feels flat. Imagine your reader has a Heart available to them. What would they learn about the places or the characters of your story? Is there a dark secret that your character doesn’t want anyone to know? Is there a mysterious past to a location that many don’t know about?

The Heart wasn’t necessary to make all characters believable, but the characters that only showed in a single level were given just as much as those that the player spent all of the game with. Even if you can’t have an actual Heart in your story, write your backstory as if you can reveal everything possible about a character, no matter how minor they seem to be.

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