A Deep Dive Into The Ins And Outs Of Narrative Game Design
Wanna get into narrative games design? Don't even know what that is? Here's what you need to know.
Picture this: it’s February, and muggy as hell. You stay inside, because you’re spoiled for choice in free-to-play and not-so-free games. If you’ve got some mob playing the same games, you’re in good company. (No wukkas if you’re playing solo; willful solitude is deadly after all.)
But then, someone pipes up that you can tell a good yarn. You’re a storyteller, and you love the games you’re playing. Then it hits you: someone’s got to make the story. Someone’s got to give your comfort characters life and purpose and things to do.
“But I don’t know code!” You say. “I can’t write too good or use these engines! What about art, I can’t do something that mad!”
Now, take a breath. Have you heard of narrative design? Quality assurance? Skilled with a few instruments? There’s a job for you in the games industry. There’s more to do than cobble a model or script a door. Work to your talents, not the voice whispering tomfoolery in your ear. So let’s bust some myths on what I do in games.
Narrative Design Is Not (Only) Being A Writer
The biggest misunderstanding about narrative design, even in the industry itself, is, “It’s basically writing.” Yes, writing is a big part of it. It’s one of your core responsibilities!
Except… that’s also ‘games writing.’ It’s a separate job for a reason. Games writers handle most, if not all, of the technical execution of writing. Character lines, menu text and item descriptions for the player is writer business. Plot documentation, worldbuilding, and relationships are also in the writer business.
Now, narrative design does feature some writing as a narrative content designer. A narrative systems designer, by and large, does not touch the writing. Their job is to help make the tools to tell the story.
Think of it this way: a narrative content designer is player-facing. They do all the stuff that the player will see most. Snappy things to do, scripting cutscenes, when and how story beats show up. The purpose of a level, championing the fiction; this is the player-facing stuff.
A narrative systems designer makes all the tools to help that. These designers wrangle dialogue systems, design and test early days tools, and make code to cue scripted scenes. Their job is to help the team tell the story. It’s developer-facing, back-end.
Here’s an example — let’s take a look at Apex Legends’ ping system. We’ll use the characters Bangalore and Octane, since they’re the ones I’m most familiar with. The game writer will handle the actual words that the voice actors speak. When pinging a backpack for a teammate, Bangalore will quip, “Backpack here, Level [Number].” Octane will say the same thing, but add, “Don’t worry, it won’t slow you down!” The game writer handles who these characters are, what they do in a situation. Details that make the characters… characters.
The narrative designer has to make the game tell the story. In this example, the ping does that job. There’s something interesting that people need, so the character alerts the others. Need to ping a weapon? That tells an in-game story of someone looking for that, getting it, and becoming stronger for it. Need to ping an upgrade? Same story.
Narrative designers bring art, sounds, writing, and programming together to tell a story-by-doing.
Narrative Design is Not (Only) Game Design
Depending on how companies set themselves up, or the size of the team, game designers can end up doing a lot of narrative work. The overlap I talked about lends to it. You have to be savvy with narrative to understand wider game design too.
So, why is it not game design? Narrative design touches mechanics, can make features… and doesn’t do writing in the strict sense. Sounds like a game designer, right?
No. It’s a completely different kettle of fish. Game designers handle mechanics, rules and levels. You’re structuring a game. Figuring out how people play it and have “fun.” They pull together art, programming, narrative, sounds and rules to make a space.
Think of it like a game of AFL or cricket. You need to design the ball, what the rules are, how many players are allowed on the pitch, how a team scores, what counts as a cheat… this is all game design. The art is on the pitch and the team jerseys; the programming is what happens when the rules start playing into the game.
None of this is narrative.
What is narrative is the story told in the action. The start-to-finish play of, “They ran out the last three batsmen in the first overs. Who can stop the bowlers? It’s a catastrophe!” Then out strides number four, smashing sixes and taking runs.
Context: narrative designers work with context. A game designer can say that the game is in space. You have a big ship that does everything, and you need to blow up the other player’s big ship with smaller ships. You mine asteroids to get resources to build your ships. You lose if the other player(s) blow up your big ship. Now go explode things!
Sounds like this game could be a lot of things. With context, I’m talking about Homeworld. For those playing at home, it’s a strategy game where you’re leading people out of exile. You must return to the first home they came from, while a crumbling empire tries to stop them.
Remember. Context. That’s your job as a narrative designer.
So What Do You Do Now?
Plenty to do! Sadly, a lot of games work is still focused within cities and using a LOT of technology. You need a lot of internet data and stable connections to work with version control. Unreal Engine and Godot can seem frightening without a programmer. Having spangly assets is nice, but you’ll have to learn tools like Blender and Asperite.
But I can offer you some pointers for narrative content design. For starters, you could write a script or treatment for the screen. There’s overlap between the telly screen and the computer screen. Working with either can help you learn how to layout a level. What does a character (the player) need to do? What are they after? Why? Learn to lay that out in a way that others can read.
Pick up a team sport. Believe it or not, start early and learn how to work with a team. An average worker who will work with their team at all points is better than a snobby, standoffish genius. An “ideas man” doesn’t really do much for the team. They’re fine for a laugh, but nobody likes them. The deadliest thing you can be is a team player who turns up, does the job and lifts others up.
Subscribe to places like gamedeveloper.com , GDC Vault and gameindustry.biz. Game developers usually want to share their stuff. Once you’re sorted with jargon, check out those places. There are much smarter people writing clever stuff there.
Finally… the big one…you need a portfolio. Make a game, any game, but get it done. And no, you’re not making something for the Game Awards 2022. Forget being on the floor of E3. There are a lot of tools speeding up development, but most games are 20 to 200-people efforts. This is your first game. If you can create a 2D infinite runner or a text-based RPG…ripper, beauty. Put it on a website and use it as a job application.
Join game jams on itch.io or the Global Game Jam. You’ll meet people you’re not familiar with to make a video game. Go out of your comfort zone to make something cool. You can do this alone, go with your mob and form a team, or join some strangers. The point is, make a game.
It’s always scary to take the plunge into games. But even if you’re doing it as a hobby, game dev needs more Blakfullas. There is a place for mob in games, and we can make it today.
Stay safe, youse mob. And split a choccy cake with your nan, if you can.
Samara-Jade Sendek is a freelance narrative designer and writer. See her tweets at @jadedsynic.