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Narrative design myth-busting: It's not "just writing"

In this ongoing series, narrative designer Matthew Weise confronts misconceptions about narrative design in game development.

Storytelling is as old as video games. Narrative design--the systematic understanding of how story works in games, and the production expertise that goes along with it--is still relatively new. While it’s common to see job ads for ‘narrative designer’ or ‘narrative director’ these days, this was not the case just a few short years ago.

Similar to where ‘game design’ was in the early-2000s, narrative design is an old art but a new (or newly understood) job. This means that, while it has indeed come a long way, there can still be a lot of confusion surrounding it: what it is, what it isn’t, where it overlaps with other disciplines, where it doesn’t. There are still a lot of myths surrounding it. Chances are you’ve heard of some, and may even harbor them without knowing it. 

This can create confusion and false expectations, hurting development and in some cases even derailing projects. This will be a series designed to save you from that, by debunking the most common myths of narrative design in games. First up:

“Narrative Design is just writing.”

Sometimes “narrative design” and “game writing” are used interchangeably. You may have heard this yourself. Companies are looking for a “narrative designer/writer” or someone might say “Our narrative designer is writing the story." While they are certainly related, it is important to remember these are two entirely different jobs, with different skillsets and different tools, that need to work in tandem to achieve a good narrative player experience.

Narrative design is, as the name implies, a type of design, like level design or systems design. The skillset and toolbox is that of a designer: helping create and/or leverage existing mechanics, systems, levels, art, UI, and sound to achieve a desired dramatic experience for the user.

A game writer creates the actual written content for the game, typically player-facing (dialogue, descriptions, menu text, etc.) but also sometimes team-facing (story bibles, character sheets, beat planning documents, etc.). Sometimes the narrative designer is also the game writer. Sometimes they are different people. Sometimes there is a whole team of narrative designers and game writers, each tasked with different things.

Seems simple enough, so why does confusion about it persist? A lot of it has to do with the messy history of narrative and writing in video games, specifically how game narrative has been traditionally siloed in the development process.

Historically, throughout much of the 80s and 90s, game narrative was equated with cutscenes and dialogue (and by implication not mechanics, systems, art, or UI). While many games--from Zork to Ultima to countless others--defied this assumption with their holistic, integrated approach to narrative, a lot of the language used to describe such holistic design was yet to develop, leaving many production teams with a simplistic “game vs. story” dichotomy informing their process. The rise of cinema-like visuals in the late 90s further siloed “story” from “game,” encouraging pipelines developed for film and tv to be dropped wholesale into game production, entrenching the perception that “writers” are the ones who work with the film people to create the movie-like bits, while the team making the actual game is off doing something else.

While a lot of this confusion has been cleared up today, it can still trip up projects, starting with the hiring process. Teams that understand the difference between narrative design and writing will have clear and specific job ads that reflect this, whereas ones that do not will often use fuzzier, non specific language that conflates the two or uses them interchangeably. Companies that know what they are doing know that if you need a writer, you need to hire a writer. If you need a narrative designer, you need to hire a narrative designer. If you need both, you need to hire both. And you are upfront and clear about this in your job ads all the way through your hiring process.

The biggest problem of hiring a ‘narrative designer’ when what you really expect is a writer is it belies a narrow-minded, outdated assumption about what narrative is and can be in your game. If you think narrative design is someone coming in at the end and adding some words and VO around decisions that have already been made in gameplay, art, and UI you are missing that holistic approach to game storytelling that has been at the core of what makes game stories so memorable, endearing, and--above all--unique to players. Your mechanics, your art, and your UI could be doing a lot of the “narrative lifting” as it were. Distributing your storytelling across all aspects of design, not just dialogue, cut-scenes, lore, etc., makes dramatic game worlds richer, fuller, and more resonant with audiences.

A good narrative designer will work with other departments to find out how the UI can express the protagonist’s personality, how a well-designed room can have the same effect as a page of dialogue, and how a game mechanic can express a spiritual and emotional conflict, not just a physical one. And those are just the basics. More advanced forms can result in truly innovative and time-saving features, like smart bark systems that ensure lines don’t become repetitive or ambitious story-generation systems like the one in Shadow of Mordor. Having a strong interdisciplinary narrative design foundation--which includes writing as an important part along with everything else--is what allows you to “level up” your narrative design, so to speak, achieving true innovation in the space that players will remember. This is the ultimate value of understanding how all these parts work together to create the art of narrative design, and what will distinguish your game as an intelligently crafted and efficient piece of work.

***

Matthew Weise is a narrative designer and writer whose work bridges the worlds of games and traditional entertainment with credits including Disney's Fantasia: Music Evolved and The Jury Room from Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson. Weise is former game design director of MIT's GAMBIT Game Lab and currently runs narrative design consultancy Fiction Control.

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