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He won a Pulitzer Prize. This man was one of the most famous critics of the 20th century. He was an international bestselling author of over 20 books. But when it came to video games, Roger Ebert was also completely wrong.“ Video games can never be art,” argued Ebert. He thought that because Dick Butkus (football) or Michael Jordan (basketball) never considered playing games as art, why should video gamers? What he missed is something every gamer knows intuitively: With every great video game comes an enthralling video game story. And someone needs to write that story. As long as you’re writing a story, you’re engaging in that ancient practice that modern humans now classify as “art.” And if you want to make your mark, you’d better believe it, too. If video games need writers, then one thing is clear: It is an art, and like all arts, it can be mastered. Here’s how to become a video game writer.
The video game writer is the individual who supplies the storylines and dialogue design to inspire emotional investment in the players. This means creating distinctive video game characters. Plotting twists and turns. Building character traits that will resonate with the audience.
In other words, art.
But what does a video game writer do to make that art intersect with such a unique medium?
Writing the Story
There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, every video game needs a story. Where would Mario be without a Princess to rescue?
Video games are like any other art form (sorry, Ebert). If we’re going to control a character, we need emotional investment. There’s no suspense about falling into a pit next to a cartoon pipe if we’re not working toward a goal.
To understand how to write a video game story, you’ll need a background in the hero’s journey. The specific formula is complex but consists of three main components:
- An outsider called to action by a greater destiny
- Crossing a threshold where there’s no returning to the hero’s original world
- Facing the “abyss” of either the final villain or the hero’s internal conflict
Look all around classic literature, and you’ll see it everywhere. The trick is in finding ways to create memorable stories from conventional elements, all while inviting the player to have a say in their own journey.
Mastering the Video Game Plot
These days, video games can play out like movies: We look for twists and turns around the corner. Just as a movie catches us off-guard with a second act twist (Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, anyone?), it blows our minds when we find out who Darth Revan was all along (Knights of the Old Republic).
Do you see a difference? I don’t.
If you don’t want Conan O’Brien roasting your plot in an episode of Clueless Gamer, your story needs the same elements as any movie. It needs credibility, it needs engaging characters, and it needs stakes—something that the characters stand to lose.
Video Game Dialogue
Video games often feature cutscenes, or brief video interludes when the player can put the controller down and watch the story unfold. Writing good video game dialogue is essential for these scenes. For starters, the dialogue has to communicate a wealth of information that the gamer needs to move to the next level. More importantly, the dialogue has to be entertaining enough to hold the gamer’s attention.
Consider the following exchange. Did it come from a video game or a movie?
Character 1: I know about sacrifices.
Character 2: No, you know about loss. Sacrifice is a choice you make. Loss is a choice made for you.
It came from the Tomb Raider series. Who could resist getting involved with a story with dialogue like that?
Learn Storytelling for Video Games!
Writing Interactive Stories for Video Games & Other Formats
It’s all well and good to understand the basics. But different games need different kinds of writing. Sandbox games like The Sims and Minecraft won’t need much writing at all. Red Dead Redemption, however, is full of vivid storytelling and writing.
What’s the difference? Here are a few video games types to learn:
RPGs: Role-Playing Games
Classics like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Knights of the Old Republic put you in a specific character’s shoes. These games both depend on an overarching storyline that keeps the gamer interested throughout. In some cases, you might create a character yourself and still encounter storylines that feel organic, even though the writers didn’t plan out exactly who the gamer would play.
In RPGs, dialogue and cutscenes are ever-present and always important. They keep the story going; they provide the stakes that make your hero’s danger all the more thrilling.
FPS and TPS
First-person (FPS) and third-person (TPS) shooters often overlap with RPGs. You’re the main character who needs to navigate the world. In some cases, you might play these online with friends and do team battles utterly devoid of any storylines.
But in story mode, you need effective writing to give the gamer a reason to keep playing. When you’re competing with the prospect of playing against your friends online, you have to inject the story with some serious creative juice.
You love video games; you don’t need convincing that good video games need good writers. The question is: How do you become one of those good video game writers and then break into the industry?
1. Education and a College Degree
First things first: Do you have the necessary background? If you start your journey in search of a “video game writing degree,” you might be looking for a while. A true video game writer degree is rare.
But it doesn’t hurt to show would-be employers that you’ve been serious about video game writing since before you went to college. However, rather than focusing on coding and development, video game writing often employs an entirely different hemisphere of the brain. Consider getting a degree in one of the following:
- Writing/Creative Writing: Not every college offers these as majors. But anything related to handling what a video game writer will do—crafting dialogue, spinning new stories—will be a point in your resume’s favor.
- English: English majors often have backgrounds in stories and the classics, giving them a great foundation for creating new classics in an entirely different medium.
2. Video Game Writing Courses Online
A degree that gives you a background in storytelling is one thing. But what about video game experience specifically? You may have to look at individual courses that tackle the unique challenges of taking age-old storytelling principles and applying them to an interactive adventure.
Don’t be afraid to specialize. You’re not learning the basics of storytelling here. You’re learning it for a specific medium.
The course Writing Interactive Stories for Video Games & Other Formats, for example, steers you through the worlds of the hero’s journey, mythic storytelling, and handling interactivity in a way that no novel author would have to imagine.
Once you’ve honed your craft, the question becomes how the rubber meets the road. What exactly will you call yourself when you sit down in an office to write video games? Before you do that, what sorts of jobs should you look for?
Sitting down and typing in “video game writing” into LinkedIn might not yield the kind of results you want. And if it did, you can bet that other people are doing the same—which means it’s competitive. Try a more direct approach.
Where to Work in Video Games
Before you start hunting for a video game job description, the best way to position yourself as a video game writer is to learn the lay of the land. Who are the major players? Consider:
- Electronic Arts
- Epic Games
- Activision Blizzard
- CD Projekt (based in Poland)
- Mythical Games
For the most part, these companies will advertise on traditional job boards. But there’s no reason you have to limit yourself to those outlets. Find anything you can to learn about who’s hiring. GameDevClassifieds on Reddit, for example, often hosts requests for video game writing jobs.
Before you send out that first resume, consider how your own career background looks. Does your degree show an interest in the kind of work you want to do? Have you taken courses or certifications that demonstrate your interest in video games? Don’t settle for a resume that only addresses writing. Show employers that you have a passion for games as well.
The Salary of Video Game Writers
According to Comparably, the average video game writer salary is $64,148. On the higher end, a video game writing salary can potentially earn six figures, though this is less common.
Video games are certainly an art form, but they’re also unique. They invite the observer to be a participant. In that, they’ll always be a two-way street. But every video game still has the same basic needs any good story does. Engaging characters. Witty dialogue. Powerful reasons to invest in the story and care about the outcome.
The question isn’t whether video games are art.
The question is: can you make them art?
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