Narrative design, the art of crafting dramatic experience across multiple disciplines, is better understood today than it ever has been. But that doesn't mean certain problems don't still persist.
The famous mantra "the writer will fix it" still dogs even well-intentioned development teams, and different disciplines often fail to align on story even when everyone wants them to. Why does this happen, even though we are so enlightened? The simple answer is bad process. Though our hearts may be in the right place, our dev processes--our production pipelines, our approval chains, our communication--are not. In this article we'll outline what must happen in order for narrative design to be integrated properly into an existing dev process built on traditional, silent assumptions of what is and isn't story, so that those good intentions are given room to flourish.
It would be easy to design an ideal development process from scratch. But unless your company was founded recently by a team of experienced narrative designers (in which case you're probably not reading this article), you are likely attempting to integrate narrative design into an existing process. This can feel like trying to fix a car while it's running, as various disciplines have to work, and the entire machine has to function, while new elements are being introduced. To make matters worse, traditional game development processes hinder narrative design, not intentionally, but simply because they don't account for it. This creates both organizational and cultural roadblocks to integrating narrative design that have to be overcome.
One way this happens is with confusing terminology. Our storytelling vocabulary is borrowed from traditional media. This can make terms like "plot," "scene," or even "story" loaded in ways that create confusion with real product consequences when used across the team by people of various backgrounds. Non-narrative folks may be more likely to default to familiar (i.e. linear) assumptions about how stories work, even in games, whereas narrative folks will understand the more specialized context of the language.
For example, someone on the coding team might hear the phrase "so-and-so is handling the story" and assume that means static cut-scene development when in fact it means mechanics and systems design for gameplay. This confusion might persist until they are suddenly being asked to help prototype new gameplay in conjunction with a writer, at which point they might (understandably) feel like pushing back because they have not incorporated room for such collaborative work into their schedule. This can become a game of telephone where bad decisions are made because narrative is not at the table when far-reaching decisions are made.
The solution here is of course to ensure narrative is at the table, but even this presents its own challenges. The process goals are rather simple: narrative needs to be included in the full tree of approvals and dependencies that other disciplines currently are. That means approval bottlenecks that would involve traditional core pipelines like design, code, or art must also include narrative, giving them equal weight in greenlighting or signing off on features. We are used to the idea that code and art affect each other. Artists cannot just decide they want unlimited polys for a model because it looks better, and coders cannot just force artists to accept an insufficient poly count because it's easier for them. We understand it is the job of both these departments to reach a compromise that best serves the user experience. Likewise, we are now more accustomed to design being part of this negotiation as well. A character artist cannot, for example, make the final decision about whether or not the protagonist has a backpack because that might send mixed messages to the player regarding the game's inventory system (or lack thereof).
Inviting narrative design into this kind of process simply means giving story the same weight as these other axes of compromise. Those tattoos may look great, but does it make sense with the character's backstory? That room layout might be fun for gameplay, but does it make sense given who lives in it? These are all conversations narrative needs to be involved in. Leaving narrative out is precisely how you create the notorious "the writer will fix it" problem, as the narrative team scrambles to respond to features and decisions made without their input, relegating them to the role of "story janitor" on the project.
Including narrative at the organizational level is really just the first step. While a good project lead will set the tone by mandating narrative be involved in these approval processes, there needs to be cultural buy-in for it to really be effective. Forcing something on a team that doesn't see the value of it will lower morale and cause friction in a way that affects productivity and creativity. Trust often has to be earned at the individual level, usually because of false assumptions about story that we've all passively absorbed from society.
One of the biggest myths of storytelling floating around in the broader culture is that it is dictatorial. When we think of storytellers we think of individuals with a lot of power, like film directors, show runners, or sole authors of novels, when in reality--even in traditional media--there are much more collaborative roles. A good narrative designer will understand this and be the advocate for teaching it to their teammates, first and foremost by example. A grumpy artist or programmer or audio designer who doesn't understand why they are meeting with a narrative designer are more likely to change their tune when a narrative designer sets the tone by soliciting their ideas, talking about narrative goals, and then brainstorming with them how to achieve them together.
A narrative designer's job is not to tell people from other disciplines what to do, but to help them understand how their work affects narrative experience, and invite them to offer solutions as only they can, with narrative design an equal supporting partner. If the artist really wants those tattoos, that might give the narrative designer ideas about the character they hadn't had before. And if, in some other instance, that level really isn't going to work for the narrative slow in spite of already being both beautiful and fun to play, level and mechanics designers will be more likely to adjust their work if they have already built up a healthy level of trust, knowing that next time the compromise might favor them.
None of this is necessarily easy. Depending on the team and on the individuals involved it could be an uphill battle. But a company or team that has made the decision to take narrative design more seriously at least, on some level, has demonstrated a desire to get this right. This may be coming from upper management, and/or whomever has made the decisions to hire new narrative talent initially, but it has to filter through out the rest of the team in a constructive, positive fashion to really take hold. This approach has a higher likelihood to produce the desired player experience, the whole reason anyone is putting this work in to begin with. Hopefully this little primer gives a sense of what is necessary, what the pitfalls are, and how to move past them as the team gains proficiency in becoming one with a healthy narrative design process fully integrated.
***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.