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Narrative Design And The Impending Tragedy Of Getting What You Ask For

Last week, my manager approached the design team about a game on a very short time-scale. I said that we needed a narrative designer and then I put myself forward for it. I didn't expect to be given the job...

Anthony HartJones, Blogger

November 2, 2009

3 Min Read

Last week, my manager approached the design team about a game on a very short time-scale, asking what we needed.  Considering the story requirements, I said that we needed a narrative designer and a whole lot of creative freedom.  Then I put myself forward for the narrative designer role.

I expected a fight, maybe even a refusal.  I didn't expect to be given the job...

So what is a Narrative Designer then and why would you want one working on your game?

Steven Dinehart gives a fairly good introduction to the role in his blog [link] - "While the strict definition may vary from team to team, and production to production, the core of this role is to champion story, craft compelling narrative elements, and define the systems through which they will delivered to the player." - okay, that seems to makes sense.  Why does this role exist though?  Why can't we leave it to the writer or the game designer?

I won't lie; you can let the designers and the writers do this together, but it tends not to be pretty.  Games designers and writers, even games writers, don't actually speak the same language.  This is much the same as designers and artists and coders, who don't always seem to have a language or even alphabet in common. 

At its simplest level, a narrative designer is the one who tries to make sure that the storyline and dialogue match the art and the design, that the story is carried forward even if the game doesn't have more than three character models and has no VO.  It is the narrative designer who makes sure that, if the dialogue mentions a white tux, the art includes a white tux, and if the code doesn't support a white tux, neither the artists nor the writers are even thinking of a white tux. 

It is the narrative designer who rewrites the dialogue at short notice when the publisher's lawyer suddenly decides on the first day of recording that  you can't have a parody of Monty Python's Cheese Shop Sketch.  So why would any sane person want to be a narrative designer? (I'll give you a hint, it is not for the money.)

The answer is (in my case) control.  I don't mean as in a promotion or even the chance to shout at people, but more about more about being in a position to keep the story from falling apart.  When things are going well, it is checking up on what everyone is doing and reminding them that the story calls for a drive-thru restaurant, not a sit-down one. 

When the 'midden hits the windmill', it is about being able to tell the artists 'you signed off on a white Tux' and know that it will probably be white by the time I finish asking the coders if we can possibly manage the sepia tone for the dream sequences that the artists and designers are talking about. 

In the end, I suppose it is just a little bit about being able to tell the lead designer 'leave it with me' and have him know that I won't spare the clue-bat if the story starts to fall out of shape.

I suppose there is one last question; what kind of masochist volunteers for such a job? 

I come from a  theatre background, having been a playwright and a director in my time.  I have taken so many roles in theatre, from stage-hand to artistic director, because I believe that "the play's the thing" (even if I don't care about the king's conscience).  I am still enough of an idealist to think it needs doing, but cynical enough to know that I had better do it if I want it done.

So a mad-man, certainly.  But a mad-man in good company...

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