Video Game Writer Interview: Anthony Burch

Anthony BurchPerhaps you all have heard of a game called Borderlands 2? Of course you have, and if you are a writer, especially interested in video games, then you have also probably heard of Anthony Burch. He has done numerous interviews and Q&A sessions online, mostly focusing on the creation of Borderlands 2, as well his experience writing the game and running his webseries, “Hey Ash, Watcha Playin?” Therefore, and since the point of my book is more about the creative writing career and how to position yourself for such a career, I would like to focus my time with Anthony on his advice in regards to creative writing careers.

Justin Sloan: Anthony, thank you for agreeing to share your advice with us. I understand you were discovered by Gearbox because of your game critiques on Destructoid.com and your webseries “Hey Ash, Watcha Playin?” (or “HAWP”), which you did with your sister, who also played the voice of Tiny Tina. What a fun story! It worked out, but looking back do you think there is anything more you could have done to help you get the career?

Anthony Burch: I probably could have been less openly and hellishly negative about game developers I didn’t like. I don’t see UbiSoft chomping at the bit to hire me anytime soon, given how I used to (and to some extent still do) shit on the Assassin’s Creed games all the time.

But yeah, the best thing I can recommend is just making your own thing that shows off your own personal style and passion. HAWP was a much better resume than anything I could fit onto a sheet of paper.

JS: Did you in any way have a plan back then, or did the Gearbox gig feel like a pretty big lottery win?

AB: There was definitely no plan. I was perfectly happy to keep being a games blogger for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until I got offered the possibility of applying that I realized it might actually be my dream job.

JS: That must have been a pretty great feeling. In your interview with “The Totally Rad Show” you said there was a learning curve associated with starting a career in writing games. Would you have done anything differently in this regard? What would you advise others that want to be ready should their chance come?

AB: I would have tried to be less desperate to prove myself. I went out of my way to speak up in meetings where I didn’t really need to, and I wrote scripts that were full of “JOKEZ!” that were designed more to show off that I could be funny and impressive than actually help the story in any tangible way. That kind of thing was born entirely out of nervousness.

JS: In that regard, do you have any favorite writers we should all follow or books on writing you enjoy?

AB: Screenwriting 101 by FILM CRIT HULK is the single best book on writing I know of. After that, Story by Robert McKee and On Writing by Stephen King are pretty good. It’s also worth reading Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, but only so you can speak the language of people who have read Save the Cat but don’t actually know what legitimately makes stories work.

JS: I heard an interview recently with a co-writer of a video game where they guy said complex narratives in the style of Hollywood don’t belong in games. Do you have any thoughts on this and how one should approach writing for a video game that would be different than writing short stories or screenplays?

AB: My personal style—and this is only coming from someone who has written for AAA action games where the mechanics are the selling point—is for the gameplay to come first and for the story to support that gameplay and work around it as best it can. I don’t like long cut scenes; I don’t like huge info dumps. When it comes to working on the kind of video games I work on, brevity is the key.

JS: Now that you’re in, is there anything different you would advise for people wanting to break in that you wouldn’t have thought of before?

AB: Use Twine! Use game maker and RPG maker and make your own story-driven games that show your skills.

JS: In your talk “Dying is Funny, Comedy is Easy” (which was great, by the way), you said you just started writing for Destructoid, submitted, and they liked it. Does this opportunity to just throw oneself in there and find a following still exist? More so or less so than it did a few years ago (perhaps so many are doing it that, so it has become harder)?

AB: Less so than a few years ago, definitely—games-blogging has become a less and less reliable form of income for a multitude of reasons. That said, I think Destructoid itself still offers positions similar to the one I initially had—basically zero pay, but the chance to go to cool games shows and get exposed.

JS: Stepping back to HAWP, which is pretty freaking funny (thanks for that), where did this idea come from? So many people try to post videos online, but you were smart in that you had a video game theme. Do you see this as a viable route for others?

AB: I initially wanted to do a documentary on indie game devs, so I bought a sexy camera and figured I needed to shoot some test footage to figure out how to use it. I thought it would be funny to shoot my sister doing the Would You Kindly speech from BioShock, and everything sorta moved from there.

But yeah, I see this as a completely viable route. Again, HAWP showed off my “skills” as a writer and my passion for video games, which were really important to Gearbox.

JS: Has HAWP changed now that both you and your sister have become big deals with the success of Borderlands 2? Of course I am sure you were a big deal before, but now a bigger deal. According to Wikipedia, it had almost 20 million views as of December 2013. Wow! If it has changed, how so?

AB: Nah, it hasn’t really changed. We still half-ass it as much as ever. I mean, it’s less horribly racist/classist/sexist now, hopefully, cause we’ve matured in the five or so years we’ve been doing it, but we don’t look at it any differently.

JS: Anthony, thank you so much for sitting down with me to discuss your advice. Before we sign off, do you have any advice for learning to be funnier? Did you take improv classes, other classes, or read any great books on the subject?

AB: Grow up nerdy, weak, and with no other way to make people at school pay attention to you. That worked pretty well for me. Honestly, I dunno how you get funnier other than just watching and reading a lot of stuff that makes you laugh and trying to steal the fundamental ideas that made that thing funny (without stealing the jokes themselves).

 

For other interviews like this, see my Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)

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