Teaching Classic Lit Helps Game Designers Make Better Stories – From Wired Magazine

Are you game? See How Homer, Faulkner, and Ibsen can help.


“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.


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