Building a partnership between writers and narrative designers

Telltale Games' Eric Stirpe and Molly Maloney discuss the difference between narrative design and writing for games.

Eric Stirpe, a writer, and Molly Maloney, a narrative designer, both at Telltale Games, gave an interesting talk at the Game Developers Conference today on how their budding romantic relationship mirrored the relationship between narrative designers and writers, often wrongly assumed to be the same person in game studios.

Stirpe and Maloney wanted to show their audience where “writing ends and design begins.” Narrative design and writing are two different professions, they argue, and have to be respected as such; one is not a substitute for the other, but each, instead, comprises a distinct area of expertise with related but discrete goals.

This can lead to conflict, as the aims of good writing are not always the aims of good game design, they argue.

At Telltale, the two roles are distinct, “full-time jobs in and of themselves,” as Maloney put it, adding that “writing is responsible for the characters, and design is responsible for the player.”

On the writing end, one’s responsibility is to have fidelity to the theme—are you being funny in a comedy game, or writing compelling drama in a more serious one? The designer, meanwhile, has to make choices feel meaningful. But the two roles “share a deliverable,” which is the story.

The designer can “run around and on-board other departments,” said Maloney, where in general they have the ability and skillset to know which other game designers are necessary to recruit in service of the story--perhaps getting graphical designers to create a specific scene that serves the emotional themes of the writer, or the programmers to make a choice functional and mechanical in the game.

You don’t have a “paint by numbers with a balance of power situation,” with Stirpe likening it to his forthcoming marriage to Maloney, where a personal relationship doesn’t have a neat cleavage of duties between its members. Neither do writers and designers.

“Developing that healthy level of collaboration takes a lot of time and trust and sometimes your partner has ideas you disagree with,” Stirpe added. “You need to get on the same page ASAP.”

He and Maloney identified two related “bad habits” in collaboration which also feel applicable to cross-department operations at any level of a game dev team.

  1. Being so unconfrontational is going to “hurt the rest of your team,” according to Stirpe. If you disagree, speak up constructively and don’t just sit back and nod or wait for someone else to oppose something you have a problem with.
  2. Being extremely confrontational--illustrated with the requisite Michael Scott-screaming-no gif. Abjectly refusing a proposal without hearing it out, except in extreme circumstances, is not productive. “Listening is not just waiting for your turn to talk,” Maloney said, adding this had been particularly challenging for her. “If you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t like an idea, maybe you should look within,” she added.

In terms of an actual design example, they brought up a scene from Minecraft: Story Mode, which they both worked on.

“Stubbing” is Telltale’s term for design contributions to a script, a kind of rough blueprint for the writers giving a skeleton for the story-structure.

Stubs are about the structure of a scene: “Reggie is surprised to see Jesse” or “Aiden doesn’t like being ignored” while the director adds notes about action or specific events that need to punctuate a scene or choice, like “Aiden spawns a creeper near Reggie.”

The editing process, at least as Maloney described it, involved cutting up the dialogue to remove unnecessary bits and break up protracted exchanges. “The longer the dialogue with no interaction, the less of a video game you feel like you’re playing,” she said.

They concluded by talking about the dangers of one side overpowering the other. Writing domination, in Stirpe’s words, has the following traits:

  • Beautiful cutscenes that inform the player how they feel.

  • Limited range of choices.

  • Player character is the least interesting part of the story.

If your character is telling someone to “calm down,” Maloney warns this may mean “two more interesting characters are doing something more interesting than you.”

She added that “design domination” has the following characteristics:

  • Overly instructional dialogue.

  • Mechanics that don’t tie into the narrative.

  • The player is the only interesting character. Ever.

So much of their advice was about finding a middle path, Maloney observed that her own third bullet point was the inverse of Stirpe’s.

A character needs to be interesting, but without overwhelming the existence of a compelling, social world around them--without that world simultaneously overwhelming anything interesting about the player’s avatar.

It’s rather a lot like being a dungeon master: your NPCs can be cool, but not necessarily with more interesting stories than your players.

But in the case of game design, naturally, there’s the added complexity of having lots of co-DMs. “You may not be romantically involved with your partner,” Stirpe concluded, “but you are in a relationship.”

Another reminder that good ‘people-skills’ aren’t optional in this field, to be sure.

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