Matt Bird writes all sorts of nonsense, but he dedicates a large chunk of his time to writing game walkthroughs.
Just about every gamer has, at some point, considered writing a walkthrough for one of their favourite games. The yearning may be strong enough to actually trigger the process, or it may just be a flicker of interest that dies as quickly as it's born, but the temptation is there. Video game walkthroughs are sure to turn their writers into superstars, after all, and if there's one thing any avid internet user wants it's the respect and adoration of their peers.
Or, uh, something like that.
Video game walkthroughs are not easy to craft. Regardless of the length of the game, each walkthrough you write will require a huge investment of time and concentration.
This guide will help you get started on crafting your first walkthrough—or, perhaps, dissuade you from attempting one in the first place. If there's one thing I've learned from writing walkthroughs, it's that they're not for everyone.
Basic Steps to Writing a Video Game Walkthrough:
- Choosing a Game
- Playing the Game
- Taking Notes
- Writing the Walkthrough
- Interacting With Your Readers
Step 1: Choosing a Game
Right. So. You want to write a walkthrough. First step: Pick your game. You probably have one in mind already, perhaps a title that no one else has yet touched, and that's a good start. Should you go with your first choice, however? Ehh... maybe.
Though all games are different, the process for writing a guide - generally speaking, anyway - doesn't vary that much between genres. You'll have to keep track of different tidbits of information, and things that are important for one genre are rather self-explanatory in another, but the difficulty of writing a guide typically comes down to one thing: the size of the game. Is it small? Medium? Large? Extra large? So large that even the thought of writing a walkthrough gives you night terrors?
It's laudable to aim high on your first walkthrough. It's also rather foolish. As with any work-related pursuit, you don't want to start too big. Choose a game that's relatively small for your first walkthrough and work your way up from there. Your investigation, writing, and organizational skills will improve dramatically with each walkthrough, to the point that you'll be able to pound out a walkthrough for virtually any game with little difficulty. (Assuming, you know, you can beat the game.) I recommend a browser-based title for your first walkthrough - something from, say, Kongregate or Newgrounds.
One last tip in the choosing stage: pick a game you like. This is more important than you might realize. Writing a walkthrough is hard work, and you probably won't enjoy the game as much as you would if you'd just played through it normally. Attempt a walkthrough for a game you know you won't enjoy and the experience becomes downright detestable.
Step 2: Playing the Game
You cannot (or should not) write a walkthrough for a game you've not played. This sounds nonsensical at first glance, but it's entirely possible to sketch out a walkthrough by watching someone else play it. You could even watch one of the many Let's Play videos on YouTube and potentially pound out a walkthrough. I recommend both as supplements for your walkthrough, but you should always be playing the game yourself simultaneously. There are a few reasons why:
- You can't really claim to be an expert on something unless you've done it yourself. This is true of virtually anything, and eventually you'll get found out. Tisk.
- You won't be able to verify whether your walkthrough is complete or not. To sketch out a full, precise walkthrough you need access to every portion of the game. Other players may miss crucial tidbits that deserve a mention in the walkthrough.
- You won't be able to answer questions from your readers. Write a walkthrough and you will get questions. Yes, some can be answered simply by reading the guide - many of your readers will be lazy, it's a fact of life - but others may force you to revisit old areas or re-battle old foes. Questions will help you improve your guide.
So play the game. Play the game all the way through. Play it until you can't possibly play it any longer, then play it some more. In the process you'll want to do the following (depending on genre, of course):
- Explore every area completely. If there are towns, speak to everyone you meet, occasionally multiple times. If there are secret doors, search every wall you come across until you find one. Collect every item you find in the process, or, even if you don't / can't pick up a particular item, note it for later.
- Fight every enemy you come across. Most games have enemies to be overcome. Even if you think you're going to lose a battle, try it out anyway. That way you can properly warn your readers not to do the same... or you can possibly point out ways to overcome battles that might otherwise seem hopeless.
- Do every side quest, no matter how inconsequential it may seem. Sometimes you'll have to do a side quest three or four times; stick with it.
- Tinker with your gear. Some games don't feature a great deal of customization, such as first-person shooters or platformers, but many games will allow you to approach one situation in a multitude of different ways. Play around with your gear with a mind for optimization, overcoming specific obstacles, and preparing for future challenges. In some cases you may have to play the game multiple times to see through all the possibilities.
- Save constantly, assuming you have the option to save. You're gonna die, and you don't want to lose your progress. If you can, have multiple save files on hand that will allow you to backtrack and replay difficult and / or contentious sections of the game. This is especially important for RPGs and some open world titles where choice plays a big role in how the game unfolds. Your readers should know what will happen if they choose one path over another.
- Take notes. Whenever you do something, write it down. Don't miss out on a single detail. More on the writing in the next section.
A walkthrough needs to be thorough. It can be incomplete when first posted - gamers are forgiving in the first few weeks after a title is released - but you'll want a complete picture by the time you wander off to play another game. Expect to spend double or more time playing a game for your walkthrough than you would playing it normally.
Step 3: Taking Notes
As you play your game of choice, you need to be jotting down notes. If you've got a computer or laptop handy, yank it over to your favourite chair and use a word processor to write down virtually everything you do. If that's not an option (I really do recommend a laptop, though), grab a pencil and a big notepad. Do not rely on your memory when writing a walkthrough. You're going to forget things.
You want to write down the following, again dependent on the game you're playing:
- Where the player has to go. This may entail directions to a store or the path through a maze. For the sake of visualizing the space, you may also want to include details beyond 'go right, go left, go up, go down'. Instead, say "Go right through the room with the chandelier, head left through the next hallway, climb up the ladder at the end of the hallway, and drop into the pit at the top of the ladder". How descriptive you are will depend on the game you're playing.
- What the player has to do along the way, and when they get to their destination. In some games this is randomized, so your walkthrough may range from incredibly specific to somewhat vague.
- What enemies the player will face. Note their behaviours, how best to beat them, and, if necessary, ways to simply get around them. Note that 'enemies' is probably better expressed as 'obstacles' - your foes may be traps, they may be the geography, they may simply be antagonists who present you with non-physical challenges. Everything goes in the walkthrough. It's especially important to note the details behind bosses, as bosses typically present the greatest challenge in any given game.
- What prizes the player will find along the way. If there are treasure chests, write down where / how they're found, and what they contain. (You don't necessarily have to provide full details on vendor trash, but that's strictly up to you.) If you're playing an RPG and an enemy always drops the same item you'll want to make a note of it.
- What will happen if the player takes one choice over another. For the sake of not spoiling the game you can be vague in your description, but ideally you'll want to know exactly what will happen if you go down Path A rather than Path B. You should also note if there's no difference in a choice.
- What different items or abilities do. If you plan on making a complete walkthrough, you'll have to keep track of item strength, effects, price, weight, and so forth, for every item you find. For this purpose you may want to pop open a new document and write in it instead. For example, when I was writing a walkthrough for Child of Light, I had four separate documents on the go: one for the main game, one for the locations of Confessions, one for oculi, and one for side quests. It's wise to create an item template when creating these giant lists which you can then fill in as you go along, then organize as necessary when the list is complete.
Yep, there's a lot to do. And that's not even the half of it, because now that you have notes you must do the deed itself...
Step 4: Writing the Walkthrough
Still with me? Then it's time to actually write the stupid walkthrough. Now comes the long slog.
I advise writing the walkthrough while taking down notes. Indeed, so long as you edit afterward, the walkthrough can be your notes. This depends entirely on how comfortable you are with your writing. If you use a slew of abbreviations and general shorthand, for example, you'll probably have to do notes first, walkthrough second. People who take notes in full sentences (me!) can get away with merging the two. Regardless, it's wise to write about a section of a game immediately after playing it because it will still be fresh in your mind. Wait a day or two to trot out the longhand and you'll probably have forgotten half of the details, and your notes may become foreign and confusing.
There are many different ways to write a walkthrough, and each writer will invariably develop their own style of writing. Perhaps you'll craft each section as a paragraph; perhaps you'll use small, digestible bullet points; perhaps your walkthrough will consist entirely of tables; perhaps you'll even craft diagrams to describe the path from one end of a confusing dungeon to another. Regardless of how you proceed, you'll want to keep the following points in mind:
- Use plain English, French, Russian, Japanese, or Insert Language Here. Don't get overly fancy in your descriptions, and at the same time don't debase the language to the point that only you and a small percentage of your readers will understand what the heck you're trying to say. The plainer your advice, the less you'll have to deal with frustrated readers later.
- Try not to use video game lingo too often. Rather than 'aggroing' your opponent, you should be 'drawing him to you'. Don't 'frag' that enemy soldier, just 'throw a grenade' at him. Forget about PvE; talk about the single player experience. All too often walkthroughs and wikis forget that many of their readers - the ones who need and use walkthroughs the most! - aren't hip to the lingo, jive cat, daddy-o, and become impenetrable walls of valuable information that only their writers understand.
- Avoid cursing, slander, religious / racial shaming, and anything else that might offend your readers. This can be difficult when writing about a game like South Park: The Stick of Truth, but it can be done.
- Divide your descriptions into neat paragraphs of four or five sentences apiece. Text walls are gruesome. (Yeah, I know, I break this one occasionally. Do as I say, not as... y'know.)
- Divide areas into separate sections. Let's say your hero has to travel from a city to a dungeon. Have one section clearly demarcated as 'City', then, assuming a lot happens there, the next section as 'World Map', then the final section as 'Dungeon'. This will allow readers to quickly skim down to the sections most pertinent to their needs. Bolded titles and subtitles will increase your walkthrough's readability. It's not a bad idea to give notable enemies, side quests, and special notes the same treatment.
- Find some way of making important points stand out. Did your hero just find a chest containing a leather hat? Then you may want to write it as Leather Hat. Or Leather Hat. Or Leather Hat. Or LEATHER HAT. Or, my preferred favourite, Leather Hat.
- Check and double check proper names for accuracy. Grammatical foibles aside, walkthroughs found online are invaluable because you can use your browser's Find function to jump right to what you want... assuming, of course, the writer didn't misspell the name. Your readers may slide right past your point about the Leather Hat if you write it as Lethr Hast, and your awesome strategies for defeating Sephiroth will go to waste if you call him Sefyroth.
- If your walkthrough is a single document, include an accurate table of contents. Hyperlink straight to sections if you can, or include Find-friendly codes if you can't. If your walkthrough is chunked up over multiple pages or articles, litter your text with links that will send readers to more information on another page. At the very least find some way to organize your walkthrough such that each article is linked in sequential order.
- Organize your walkthrough logically. Controls and tutorials go first; the main game second; skills, abilities, and items typically come last. How you sort your walkthrough will shift depending on your game and the relative importance of each section to your readers.
- Edit. Edit edit edit. Read and re-read your work multiple times until you've destroyed every typo, vanquished every inconsistency, trampled every inaccuracy, and righted every wrong your enfeebled hands may have committed. You should also be prepared to edit in new information as it becomes available to you, since you probably won't get everything on your first jaunt through a game.
Yep, exhausting. Writing a walkthrough is hard work, and you'll be smashing away at it for weeks longer than you'd anticipated. Even when you 'finish' the walkthrough, you still have another wild element clawing at your throat...
Step 5: Interacting With Your Readers
You can't just slap a walkthrough on the internet and then not answer any questions about it, not if you intend to earn any fans. You're going to have to answer questions from frustrated readers. If you followed the guidelines above you'll probably limit the number of questions asked, but some (occasionally many) will still slip through. Here are some suggestions for dealing with, uh, 'fan mail'.
- Don't attack your readers. They may seem clueless, or lazy, or brazen, or insulting, or downright rude. Some will call you a brainless idiot, a useless moron, a ^*@&^ing (@(*^#, and plenty else besides. It happens. Respond with courtesy.
- Answer questions as best you can. You've written the walkthrough; chances are good you know a few things. If you don't know something, either search the game for the answer, do some research, or admit you can't figure it out and ask if anyone else has an answer. Speaking of which...
- Ask for help! Most of your readers - the ones likely to comment, anyway - will be courteous, friendly, relaxed folks. At their best gamers are a strong, cooperative community, and your readers will want to help make your walkthrough as accurate as possible. If you can't figure something out, make a note of it in the walkthrough, wait for an answer, and then plug in the pertinent details as appropriate.
- Optionally, tied to the point above, thank your readers in the walkthrough. You'll earn loyalty and respect from your commenters for admitting that they helped you puzzle out a problem.
- Be punctual. Keep an eye on your email or the comments tied to your walkthrough. If someone asks a question, try to answer it as quickly as you can. Not only is this courteous, it will keep the reader focused on your walkthrough, rather than wandering off to read a different one.
- Last, don't abandon a walkthrough that has lingering questions. This becomes more and more difficult as time passes and details slip from your mind, but you should at least try to answer questions on old walkthroughs. (I'm terrible at this last one. Truly.)
Your readers are, as far as walkthroughs go, your lifeblood. You are creating the walkthrough to appease your readers. Keep them happy and they'll spread your url from one side of the internet to the other, viral style.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Let me know.
I've been writing walkthroughs for about two years, now, and I'm well aware that some of my older guides (Ni no Kuni!) aren't that amazing. Only in the last few months have I felt secure in my output, and even then I know I should go back and put in some more work on what I've written.
Your walkthrough will never be entirely informative, nor should it be—sometimes it's better to just skimp on details and let players discover what's ahead on their own. You also shouldn't become so obsessive that, say, you point out the locations of every gold coin in a Mario game.
At the end of the day, your walkthrough need only be one thing: helpful. It may not be pretty, it may not be witty, it may not be covered in ASCII art depicting the game's title screen, but so long as your walkthrough is helpful it is doing its job.