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  • Writer's pictureVi Welch

Video Games that Made Me a Better Writer (Part 1/2)

If we’re being honest, video games and good writing don't have a richly entwined history. When games were at their earliest and most basic, they would simply either emulate spaceships or tennis. Those were your two options. Spaceships or tennis. And sure, it’s easy to look back at video gaming’s bumbling infancy and poke fun at the lack of sophisticated storytelling, but if you take a broad view of mainstream games in the last four decades, legitimately good writing has always been the exception rather than the rule. If the 70s and 80s were gaming’s infancy, then the 2000s were its awkward teen years. When everything was about big lads with big guns, glorifying the military, main characters with white skin and short brown hair clumsily stitched together with tired stereotypes of masculinity. Surprisingly, the majority of these weren’t exactly Pulitzer Prize winners either.

And you know what this taught me?

Writing is really, really important.

Gaming was one of my main hobbies and interests growing up, yet most studios seemed to treat writing as an afterthought rather than an essential part of the experience. So when an example came along that had truly excellent writing, it stood out like a neon kebab shop sign on a drunken 2am walk home - reinforcing just how powerful writing can be. This is a philosophy that has carried through into my copywriting career, and has driven me to avoid easy clichés, and aim for something that’ll rise above the mediocre.

Because unfortunately, there are still too many people in recruitment (and online content as a whole) who think the same way that the gaming industry did. That writing is an annoying necessity. That if you’ve got great graphic design and branding, the writing doesn’t really matter. That you can just spell out your info in the most bland and direct way possible instead of taking the opportunity to create a unique voice, or to reel in your target audience with dynamic flair.

To those people, I present this list of video games that taught me how important good writing is. Give them a play and you might learn something too.

1. Full Throttle

When video games started leaving the arcades to settle down and get comfortable in people’s living rooms, bedrooms and offices - a dichotomy began to emerge between the flashy fast-paced console market and the slower, more thoughtful PC titles. While consoles were home to platformers, fighting games, racers and other gameplay-heavy genres - on PC, adventure games reigned. These were largely story driven, with the interactive element taking the form of dialogue trees and item-based puzzles. “Wow,” you might be thinking. “If adventure games were so reliant on plot, they must have put extra effort into the writing!”. Oh you poor, ignorant fool.

Even so-called “Text Adventure” games mostly had dull writing – and words were literally all they had to offer. And when these evolved into graphic adventures, there was still a lot of chaff to sift through. The bastion of quality was LucasArts, which was putting out a slow but steady stream of interactive adventures that still hold up to this day - from Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island to Loom and Grim Fandango. The game that found its way into my house though, was Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle.

I literally can’t remember back to before I knew every single solution to every puzzle in this game, and I’ve played it from beginning to end significantly more times in my life than any other game in existence. You know what that says to me? The only thing bringing me back to Full Throttle was getting to experience the story again and again.

With the power of its writing, it built such a detailed world with a rich and complex cast of characters. The biker gang leader framed for a murder he didn’t commit, the tough mechanic who suddenly discovers she’s heir to the last remaining motorbike manufacturer in the country, the sinister businessman who seeks to usurp her and build minivans instead - even the tiny side characters like the slimy trucker dude you find playing knifey-finger in a bar who smuggles you across security checkpoints (I’m just realising I was allowed to play this as a child??). They all had distinct and engaging personalities communicated through its pitch-perfect writing.

2. Psychonauts

If you know much about video games, you’ll notice that Psychonauts is another game by Tim Schafer – the same writer and director of Full Throttle. “Oh, we’re only on the second game of this list and they’ve both been helmed by the same guy? I guess your scope of influence is pretty narrow, eh Vi?” Well, you know what? Guilty. He’s one of gaming’s only writing superstars. He’s one of the industry’s only NAMES. The fact that people even know Tim Schafer as an individual in the first place is a testament to how good he is. And Psychonauts is the perfect game to prove it.

As great as Full Throttle was, the trappings of the genre made it feel almost like an interactive book rather than a game. Psychonauts, on the other hand, is a GAME. It has levels, it has a health bar, it has jumping and punching and superpowered telekinesis. And you know what? It was fine. Functional. It mostly worked. But the power of its writing launched it directly into the ranks of one of my all-time favourite games. If that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is.

You see, this was the game that made me realise that writing can be integrated as part of a larger whole, and has the power to elevate a project that might even be somewhat lacking without it. If you know how, the right words in the right tone of voice can save a mediocre project. You might not be looking to say anything very original, or you might not have the strongest visual design – but as long as you’ve got a good copywriter on your side, nobody will even notice.

3. Portal

Portal was the first game I’m aware of that was pretty much universally and infinitely quotable within the video gaming community. It was our Ghostbusters. If you’re out of the loop on this, I don’t think I can accurately describe how unusual it was to be able to quote lines from a video game with your friends – or hell, even strangers. It just doesn’t happen.

Portal was an incredibly innovative puzzle game, but it wasn’t just the great gameplay mechanics that made it stand out, it was the perfectly written and delivered dark comedic tone. Running scientific tests at the command of a computerised voice that starts off tempting you with the promise of cake and ends up impotently murderous, had never been so much fun. Plus, the background details that implied other test subjects were slowly going mad, scribbling on the walls and falling in love with inanimate boxes – it was funny and sinister in equal measure (let’s not forget, it spawned the immortal line: “The cake is a lie”). Completing Portal only takes a couple of hours, but just when you think it’s all over, you get an end-credits song written by the immensely talented Jonathan Coulton with hilarious and catchy lyrics that perfectly match the tone of everything you’ve just played.

But I noticed something interesting in the midst of all this. While the rest of the game is perfectly designed, the writing is the main thing that everyone talked about.

Because even if you’ve got everything working for you. Even if every other element of your project is as strong as it can possibly be - good writing can push it to heights you might not have even imagined. Portal could have taken its brilliant game concept, played it completely straight, and it would have been a good game. But it went all in with its superb writing, and it became ICONIC. Words are how we communicate as a species, and if you can write something that connects, you never know how far that message can travel.

In Conclusion...

I realised halfway through writing this that I actually had a lot more to say than I initially thought, so I’m going to leave things here and pick up with the rest of my list in Part 2 – but if you want a takeaway message, here it is:

You may not think that the writing is the most important part of your project, but never underestimate how big a difference it can make. It’s always going to be worth getting a professional writer to give your copy some pep – no matter how good a job you think ChatGPT or Jeff the intern did.

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