The Writer’s Game: Demon’s Winter

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I continue to analyze what video games I’ve played provide lessons for writers! This time, a blast from the long past!

Demon’s Winter was released in 1988, a sequel to Shard of Spring which I never played.  Though it had mixed reviews, I found it to be excellent and replayed it at least three times.  Not only was it a fun game, it had excellent storytelling which provides valuable lessons for writers.

The core of Demon’s Winter is something we’ve seen all too often (more so since the 80’s).  Monsters destroy your village so you inevitably sally forth with a group of diverse characters to fight evil.  Demon’s Winter went beyond the stereotypes with excellent story and setting elements.

Spoilers follow.  Yes, for a game from 1988, but I feel I should say it.

One Step Beyond

The first thing I noticed playing Demon’s Winter was the class (profession) and skill system.  Many games of the time essentially stole from Dungeon’s and Dragons and called it a day.  Another party with a fighter, a mage, a thief, etc.  Demon’s Winter did its own thing while building a setting.

First, gone were many typical generic classes.  Combat characters had to choose between a wilderness-wandering Ranger, a holy Paladin, etc.  Wielders of magic drew their abilities from multiple styles.  There were even two pantheons of gods for religious characters to follow.  Each character could be customized further, adding to the richness.

The manual of the game explained the character choices in detail.  I learned why it was hard for Paladins to learn certain magics – they avoided anything that wasn’t healing (or you paid a lot of skill points).  The two pantheons of gods were described in detail.  The manual helped the setting feel alive and refreshingly different.

For writers, this is a good lesson that you can play with tropes audiences expected while still making them interesting.  Explore the tropes your own way and add your own details and worldbuilding to bring it together.

Say It And Show It

When playing Demon’s Winter, I was pleased to see that places and story elements mentioned came into play.  There was not a pile of generic fantasy names and flummery, but actual things you’d see and deal with.  Something said in passing might be very important later.

My favorite part of this was discovering a seemingly throwaway line about a Dwarven Forge was real.  My party trekked across a strange island and found this hidden place that made weapons.  Needless to say, we left well-armed to fight evil, and I enjoyed the game’s rich continuity that much more.

This is a classic element of writing – foreshadowing, say-it-see it, etc.  But it’s nice to see it well done and in a way that matters.

Shake The World

Fantasy Epics often see the world changed and threatened.  Demon’s Winter was more than happy to break the rules of the setting when the bad guys got busy.

How broken?  The first major plot twist in the game sees the demonic villain of Demon’s Winter murder the gods.

There I am, slightly past the halfway point of the game, when I am informed the gods have been dead.  Clerics and shamans in the party lose their powers and seek out elder deities to get them back.  The impact of that moment stays with me to this day.

Demon’s Winter didn’t stop with deicide.  As your party closes in on the villain, he plunges the world into eternal winter and destroys it.  Cities and towns you relied on are gone, the graphics change, and survival becomes harder.  The game’s final arc takes on a post-apocalyptic bent.

None of these moments felt cheap because they fit the story and the setting.  The world broke in ways both impactful and believable, and I felt those moments.

For writers, it’s a good reminder it’s fine to break things up and shake them up if it makes sense.  Doing that can make the most sense, and it engages your audience. 

End It Well

Finally, I remember Demon’s Winter for the endings.  Once you defeat the big bad, you had two impressive possible endings.

First, you can join with one of the older gods and achieve dietyhood.  This is a nice ending, but the game suggests that your new career may be in danger when evil rises again!  A solid ending with room for a sequel.

The second ending is one that stands out.  If your heroes choose to stay mortal, they each get a different ending based on character class.  Depending on your party composition, you get a different set of stories and a satisfying conclusion for each character.  The team Theif may become a legend while seeking great treasure while the psychic Visionary becomes an advisor to the new ruler.

This second ending added personalization to the ending, drawing the curtain on your adventure in ways that felt real.  You had closure not just on the story, but your characters in a way that gave your tale personal meaning.

Unfreezing Ideas With Demon’s Winter

Demon’s Winter went far for a game, let alone a game from the late 80’s in an genre often filled with derivatives.  It built a world where characters meant something, smashed their world when needed, then gave them personal and satisfying endings.  By embodying these important lessons, it provides an example of how impactful they can be.

Takeaway’s for writers:

  • You can use tropes, but give them your own twist and the details to make them living and believable.
  • If you call out or bring something up, it probably should be part of your story later.  That also helps with worldbuilding.
  • Be willing to shake up or break your world in ways that fit your tale.  Give such things meaning and impact because sometimes you have to shatter expectations to fulfill them.
  • Make your endings personal so make the characters’ journeys relevant and impactful.  This doesn’t need to be complex, but it should be meaningful.

Steven Savage