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Foot In Door : Narrative Designer

Unsolicited advice to win the interview and get the job. This post opens the discussion to Gamasutra and focuses on a Narrative Designer position.

Glenn Storm, Blogger

October 26, 2011

8 Min Read


A friend and colleague recent asked to relay advice to someone who was interviewing for a Narrative Designer position at a major development studio. The following is an edited version of the reply, altered slightly to fit a presentation to the professional community here on Gamasutra. The hope in bringing this discussion to the blog space is to refine such advice with the help of many Narrative Design professionals and expose the results of the discussion to all.


First, do your homework. This friend had already collected some of the best interviews with top narrative teams. There's was little to add to this list of links, as they provide more than a peek into top-tier narrative development in practice. These two stood out:

Irrational Games talk-over trailer:

Naughty Dog Uncharted 3 developer interview:

Rising Action

Yes, these references are excellent. Particularly to highlight what is different about modern narrative design, as opposed to just a few years ago, where simpler dialog trees and on-rails cutscenes were all there was in AAA games. Especially in the Bioshock developer talk-over, they mention more complex systems that the narrative designer will have to work with, sometimes designing themselves, sometimes working closely with game/system designers and engineers to make this end up looking natural, yet with a significant measure of the power narrative can bring. Hear them talk about the iterative process, changes made after experimentation, how they needed to establish character and goals first, before they could unfold the narrative aspects shown in the rest of the demo. Along those lines, listen carefully to what Amy Hennig from Naughty Dog is saying about the team's 18-month act of faith, and of her faith in herself, that she will be able to tie things together, through iteration and critique, and make it work.


Given all this good reference, it might be best to just focus on the bullet points of the position requirements and responsibilities being interviewed for. Clearly, they've passed the first test and gotten the interview, but these points still hold relevance and speak to the kinds of questions they're likely to encounter, the kinds of problems they might be asked to solve on the spot; mostly to see their thinking process and get a feel for what it will be like to work with them, solving the day-to-day problems at the studio.

Main Event

These are some things to consider, point-by-point, about the position in relation to this interview:

• Under supervision of Creative Director, design and document interactive narrative systems to facilitate story and emotional delivery to player
Despite all the talk about iteration, experimentation and faith, in general, there can be a very strong dogma towards comprehensive documentation. Striking a balance, and clearly demonstrating the skills needed to comprehensively document can show holistic thinking, while recognizing the need for change and flexibility, and providing proof of your willingness and ability to do so, will go a long way to putting the interviewers at ease.

• Act as a champion of the story, script and speech across the game and game team
Here the most powerful thing you can have on hand are testimonials from others who have benefited by your ability to convey story and character, and to inspire them to confidently run with it based on your input. What the interviewers want to hear is that others 'got it' because of your ability to communicate the story elements effectively.

• Collaborate with other designers to execute on narrative goals within the design and implementation of game world systems and mission design - this may include working in the game editor and script system
As above, they're checking to see how well you work with others and with other disciplines, but here they also mention a technical skill that is required; an ability to work with the tech just as easily as people. Demonstrate your ability to script and edit game levels in some engine or tech.

• Collaborate with the cinematics team and story team to create and maintain game dialogue documentation, NPC character information, world back story, and cinematic development plans
For Amy Hennig, she has a luxury (and the awesome responsibility) of holding all this in her head, so she can be flexible and productive no matter what problems come up. You can't expect that to be the case elsewhere. Here, you need to clearly illustrate your ability to hold all this in your head -and- put it all down in a document that keeps everyone on the same page. As opposed to the technical complexity they're checking for in the point above, here they want to see your ability to manage story complexity and character complexity.

• Act as a central resource for all things narrative related
They want to hear you've been in this role before, fielding random problems that only someone with the holistic knowledge of the characters and story could solve. Again, testimonials are your friend.

• Work with the story team to ensure narrative synopses, treatments and script content and story blend seamlessly with cinematic and design directions and be responsible for revision and approval submission
This is where they're checking for your experience and proven success in collaborating with other story professionals. Pointing to occasions that called for team writing, at least co-writing, will go far here.

• Work with the sound department on emotional tone of the sound design, including music selection; may assist with actor voice direction as needed
Rightly, the narrative designer needs to work with actors and sound professionals. This experience is a must and needs to be demonstrated as a proven skill.

• Manage own schedule to accommodate the narrative deliverables of the project and propose solutions for conflicts that arise
Previous writing professional responsibility demonstrated under pressure. Something that shows you can handle the pressure of whatever comes your way.

• Ability to develop visual theory into production-ready concepts as well as written and physical specifications for game narrative implementation
Showing storyboards will help ease their 'visual theory' concerns. Many things (in western culture) are judged primarily on how it looks at first glance. Have a couple 'wow' pieces, even if only in terms of the idea conveyed (cinematography, pacing, visual comedic bit, dramatic reversal sequence), as opposed to the artistic skill.

• Understand techniques to elicit player emotion
Tricky one. They want magical divination of all player's reactions, so it can be accounted for ahead of time. : ) Simply prove that your work in the past has had a significant emotional impact; or better yet, show them something that knocks their socks off.

• At least 3-6 years of previous experience as an Art Director, Story Designer, Narrative Designer or other similarly tasked position in the game industry
Industry experience, so they don't have to churn game dev newbies and waste time/money. Important thing here is to show some of the toughest, most novel, problems you've faced, and how brilliantly you handled them, like it was just another day on the job; or how hard you worked, how much you struggled, to get it just right. (second approach will require proof that it was just right)

• In-depth knowledge of industry trends in interactive storytelling with a deep interest in creatively advancing the story medium
Should be able to ease their concerns by talking about your favorite game narrative experiences (playing), as well as the bigger challenges you see for expressing narratives in games. (if you can talk a little about how you want to address those problems: big plus)

• Excellent communication, collaboration, interpersonal, and organizational skills
Testimonials will work best, but examples can also be effective.

• Proven ability at successful multi-tasking under great pressure
Prior experience successes will speak for themselves here.

• Experience with game editors and scripting systems.
Show off something very techy that serves a narrative purpose. (the more novel, even if niche, the better)

Wrap up

Take all this with a grain of salt. You need to be your own person when you walk into the interview. But, it might be best to comb through these, find the points you can address together, give the priority ones (the bullet points at the top) the most attention, and practice on others with your 'pitch' that addresses most, if not all, these points. Probably more helpful to practice with folks you don't know, but above all, get their honest and comprehensive feedback on your pitch, and improve it based on their feedback. (trust them)

Hope that helps.

[The author of this post is a game designer and story artist, currently collaborating with researchers, engineers, scientists and entertainment professionals at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. And if you're wondering, 'who's that?' Remember Google's April Fools Gmail via Kinect, and later that day, someone actually built it? Yep, that was the ICT. ICT primarily focuses on providing simulation of naturalistic human appearance and behavior, with leading experts in artificial intelligence, graphics and the entertainment industries at large.]

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