I’m a big fan of the killing game genre. Ever since I picked up The Hunger Games books around 2010, I was hooked on the tension and psychological tension of knowing you’re playing a game you didn’t want to play where the odds are skewed against a happy ending. Killing games can have a huge scope, shake political boundaries, or just be plain cool. I’ve even written one of my own, which will hopefully be published one day in the future, fates willing. I’m not going to claim I’m an expert at making them good, but I will say I’m not half-bad at figuring out when and why they suck. So, here’s an attempt at consolidation of my thoughts on how people drop the ball in writing these stories.
The first issue for me was coming up with a meaningful definition for a killing game. It’s hard to decide if Saw, Se7en, or Until Dawn count as killing games, or if a story needs to come after Battle Royale, published in 1999 and often considered the originator of the modern killing game, in order to be a proper killing game. Is And Then There Were None a killing game? Is ‘killing game’ a genre, or more of a tangled web of tropes frequently used together in this type of story? I decided that the most meaningful way to move forward was to come up with a group of common traits these stories have, in order to make a definition with a lot of wiggle room.
In my eyes, killing game stories frequently feature a young cast (e.g Doubt and many other games) who enter into the game without their consent (e.g Battle Royale). If they do consent, it’s in order to gain an inordinately valuable prize that they are willing to kill for (e.g Mirai Nikki, where winning puts you in control of the universe). The amount of information the players receive about the game and setting is tightly controlled (e.g Danganronpa). Finally, of course, there is some kind of imperative to kill or harm others, usually against the player’s will, and a systematic way of determining the ‘winner’ and the victory conditions (e.g The Hunger Games). Basically, it’s a game, you have to play it, and someone has to win it, and the whole process is going to be very traumatising. The number of the players can range from two, like in Saw, or can be very high. The games frequently feature an MC of some kind, especially one with distinctive character, to act as a referee of sorts, such as Caesar Flickerman from The Hunger Games, Monokuma from Danganronpa, or the fucker with the mask from Saw.
But enough about definitions. You came here to learn what I think about how to write them. The generic writing advice of course applies here – put plenty of work into your plot, develop your characters, make sure you know the intricacies of your setting inside and out. Basically, be good at writing. This advice is totally useless when asking how to write a specific genre, so let’s break it down into actually useful things within those general advice categories.
Put plenty of work into your plot:
One thing that people enjoy about killing games is the fact they aren’t straightforward. It takes a lot of elements from both a slasher film and a murder mystery, so like those genres, you need to come up with a plot that has plenty of complexity and intrigue to it, to keep the reader engaged and things moving along. One of the tricks used in few different killing games I can think of (Doubt, Until Dawn) is to keep the plot twisting constantly, but I’m not in favour of this, especially if you don’t have that many characters. I’ll explain why.
A very important thing in writing mystery stories is that there is a degree of trust between the writer and the audience, that you will follow through with your promises, and that you won’t pull any dirty tricks. It’s sorely tempting to twist your plot in some new and creative way because you know it will blindside the audience, such as visibly killing off a character only to reveal they are alive later. I lost trust in the story of Until Dawn for this reason; since they kept pulling miraculous survivals out of their asses on my playthrough, real deaths felt a lot less meaningful. The audience can learn information later that make them see the earlier events in a different light, but they should never feel like you have ripped them off. Maintaining the trust of the audience and being an author of your word will mean that your audience is more likely to enjoy your story’s climax and find it satisfying.
People like to be proven right a lot more than they like to be proven wrong. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be clever with your audience, but can’t you think of occasions where you’ve had this nagging feeling in the back of your head that was later proven right? It makes you feel like a fucking genius, like you would actually stand a chance at surviving this game, and if you can make your audience feel like that then they’ll probably remember it for a good while. It’s much less satisfying to feel that there was never a chance you could ever have seen any of these plot twists coming, because you never received enough information to feel like you had an understanding of the plot.
With that in mind, let’s consider how people will feel while consuming your story for the second or third times. That’s very important to consider when sketching out plot twists. If it’s a good twist, people will be able to notice things leading up to it that they didn’t notice before. It’s a cool feeling, that. If you can make it so that people are noticing new things in your story the more times they read it, then that’s a fantastic way of making your story memorable and worth recommending to others. I’m also a big fan of characters growing and changing, so that if you go from the end of the story right back to the start, the contrast is clear and obvious. I fucking love that.
Develop your characters:
Like I said, killing games can have huge variations in the number of characters included. Any amount is fine, but the size of the cast does have an influence on how you treat your characters in your narrative. My advice is that the amount of meaning proscribed to each character’s injuries or death should be inversely proportional to the number of characters. If you have 24 characters, there’s plenty of room for cheap deaths or injuries without a lot of weight behind them, but as your list of characters thins, the attention you pay to each death needs to increase in order to maintain the tension. If you spend too much time on the deaths of each of the 24 characters without a very good reason, your story will drag emotionally, but if you are too quick killing off characters when there aren’t many left, you’ll be losing the much-needed tension. If you only start with a few characters, every single character’s life and death is meaningful, and for the reasons stated above, do not try and get more mileage out of your cast by pretending to kill people and revealing they are alive.
For almost every killing game, the characters will be the driving force behind your reader’s investment. It’s through the characters that we feel the tension of the game, the need to escape, and the pain of failure, and you need to have interesting and nuanced characters to get the reader invested in the climax of the game. So, at least for your main character or characters, don’t skimp on the details. They need to be compelling, and they don’t need to be good people; in fact, I think killing games are more interesting when the number of purely good people involved is limited. Set your inner bastard loose!
The very last thing I want to add about characters is that the fact they are in a killing game can be a great source of motivation and conflict. Each character will be impacted differently by the reality of the game, which will clash with their morality and ambitions and give you a great opportunity for character growth. One character agrees with their captors and decides to go apeshit? Fantastic. Characters are scared of leaving the game or don’t want to while others do? Fucked up if true. Killing games are great because they start around when the game starts, so there’s a whole cast’s worth of backstory you can draw on to build the whole thing.
Make sure you know the intricacies of your setting inside and out:
This is obviously true of most stories, but there’s an important reason to do so in this kind of story: a killing game is a game. Sure, it’s a cruel game designed to have few winners, but it’s still a game. You should know who set it up, who’s running it now, what these people are like, what the rules are, even if you don’t show much of this work in the final story. Are the rules of the game unfair or ever-changing? That’s fine, but you, the author, need to have a firm handle on what’s going on behind the scenes. The last thing you want is to accidentally leave obvious holes in your plot or solutions to the game that you didn’t think of, because that will make you lose tension at an alarming rate. And plus, the better you know your game the more you can play with the rules of the game, like the dramatic ending of The Hunger Games where they use the gamemaker’s need to have a victor to allow them to both survive, or like how the first Danganronpa game involves a significant amount of rules-lawyering at the end to figure out whether they will get to leave.
Other miscellaneous writing advice:
I just wanted to add a quick note here about the purpose of violence and gore in your story. Most killing games will have a degree of blood and guts, since there’s some killing going on. But there’s a huge difference between different ways of portraying violence, with ‘sexy and glamorous’ as one angle and ‘inherently traumatic’ as another. You can combine them together or lean on one or the other, but make it match the tone of your story. If you’re trying to have people love your characters and get desperately invested in their survival, don’t make the violence seem like too much of a party, and if you’re planning a gory romp, don’t just randomly make someone’s death horrifying and traumatic unless this is a tone shift that you actually planned. The Hunger Games is a decent example of traumatic violence, where every horror that Katniss sees weighs heavily on her soul, while Battle Royale frequently goes the other way, with violence used to make characters seem cool or sexy. Danganronpa does a mixture of both, in line with its erratic and over-the-top tone. It’s something to consider.
With that, I conclude my list of writing tips that are specific to the killing game genre. I hope I gave enough specific advice to help potential killing game writers refine their tale. I’m happy to elaborate on any of these points or study any of the examples I provide in more details, since there’s nothing I like more than pontificating on extremely specific topics. The killing game genre can be fucking amazing when done right, so I’m hoping to see more golden examples of this genre in the future.