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Why NarraScope? Motivations for Organizing a Game Narrative Conference

A reflection on the motivation for helping organize the upcoming Narrative Games Conference, NarraScope.

Justin Bortnick, Blogger

April 11, 2019

4 Min Read

At GDC 2018, I was hurrying through the convention center (frazzled, no doubt, about my upcoming talk about designing Frog Fractions 2’s narrative and alternate reality game) when an unobtrusive flyer on a table caught my attention.  “Get on board the early hype train for the new Narrative Interactive Fiction Adventure Games Convention” it read, and I was intrigued.

I’ve been writing in and around games since at least 2007 – when I was a Sophomore in High School and decided to take on the localization work for an untranslated Game Boy Advance game.  I’d since worked as an independent games journalist, interviewing the folks who make games about their creative process, and as a professional games writer and designer.  I’m now working on completing my doctoral dissertation while researching the ways that games deploy narrative.  It has always been clear to me that the way that games tell stories has always been an important, integral part of the creative medium.  This is not novel, shocking news, and probably reads as common sense to most of you.

And yet. Having spoken with dozens of colleagues in and around games over the past half-decade or so, especially those whose job is primarily to design the worlds in which we regularly immerse ourselves, there is a sentiment that the position of the writer or narrative designer is subordinate or even expendable.  I have heard this from writers at all levels of the industry – from small independent teams all the way up to folks you have almost certainly heard of, working on AAA-level big budget productions.  I have heard stories of writers being asked to produce hundreds of pages in a single weekend, of writers taking the blame for design decisions which force last-minute rewrites, of writers being brought in one month before a game goes gold to retrofit a story onto an existing set of mechanics.  These anecdotes are also not novel or shocking news, and probably something several of you have yourselves experienced.

It is unsurprising, then, that within the larger framework of the games space, narrative and writing doesn’t get boosted the way that technological advancements and engineering feats do.  This past year, I heard more on the show floor and afterparties about raytracing than about empathetic character writing.  I was regaled with stories about the value of new post-processing software for audio, but not about how to make players become invested in a dramatic situation.  There are narrative summits, and excellent talks from amazing individuals, but it’s clear this is not where the focus of our profession currently lies.  This is not to say nobody cares about writing in games, of course – simply that it is a relatively small concern for many.

To bring things back around to the beginning of this story, I followed up on the flyer and got involved with helping the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation plan what would eventually become NarraScope.  NarraScope is “a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players,” according to our website.  It is being held from June 14-16 in Boston, MA this summer, at MIT.  While it is not the first ever gathering solely dedicated to the stories that games tell – there have been examples in Canada and Europe, from whom we have drawn much-appreciated inspiration – it is an opportunity for those of us in the United States to come together for a weekend and consider an aspect of game design that we all love, and feel deserves its own dedicated time and space for consideration.  Each member of the NarraScope steering committee has their own reasons for pitching in, and this is mine – to offer those who work in games in the same way that I do a place to come and be inspired, to meet other people with the same challenges and learn from them, to hear talks from incredible writers and designers, and to have a good time.  We’ve purposely been as broad as possible when it comes to our definitions around games with stories in them, so we encourage everybody who can to attend – even if you suspect your game may not be a “narrative game.”  Your game has a story to tell, after all.  Why not let it?

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