How it works? And how to start
Want to get into narrative game design? You don’t even know what it is? Here’s what you need to know.
Picture this: it’s February, and heavy as hell. You stay inside, because you are spoiled for choice between free and less free games. If you have crowds playing the same games, you’re in good company. (No wukkas if you’re playing solo; voluntary solitude is deadly after all.)
But then someone tells you that you can tell a good story. You are a storyteller and you love the games you play. Then it jumps out at you: someone has to make history. Someone has to give life, purpose and things to your comfort characters.
“But I don’t know the code!” ” You say. “I can’t write too well or use these engines! And art, I can’t do something that crazy!
Now breathe. Have you ever heard of narrative design? Quality assurance? Skilled with a few instruments? There is a job for you in the games industry. There’s more to it than tinkering with a model or scripting a door. Work according to your talents, not the voice whispering antics in your ear. So let’s bust some myths about what I do in games.
Narrative design is not (just) being a writer
The biggest misunderstanding about narrative design, even within the industry itself, is, “It’s basically writing.” Yes, writing is part of it. This is one of your main responsibilities!
Except… it’s also “game writing”. It’s a separate job for a reason. Game writers handle most, if not all, of the technical execution of the writing. Character lines, menu text, and item descriptions for the player are the writer’s business. Documenting plot, world-building, and relationships are also part of the writers business.
Now, narrative design involves some writing as a narrative content designer. A designer of narrative systems, on the whole, does not touch writing. Their job is to help create the tools to tell the story.
Think of it this way: a narrative content designer is player-oriented. They do whatever the player will see the most. Quick things to do, script cutscenes, when and how story beats appear. The goal of a level, to defend the fiction; that’s the player-facing stuff.
A narrative systems designer makes all the tools to achieve this. These designers manipulate dialogue systems, design and test early tools, and create code to signal scripted scenes. Their job is to help the team tell the story. This is a developer-oriented back-end.
Here’s an example — let’s take a look at Apex Legends’ ping system. We’ll be using the characters Bangalore and Octane, as they’re the ones I know best. The game author will manage the actual words that the voice actors speak. When pinging a backpack for a teammate, Bangalore says, “Backpack here, level [Number].” Octane will say the same, but add, “Don’t worry, it won’t slow you down!” The author of the game manages who these characters are, what they do in a situation. Details that make characters… characters.
The narrative designer must make the game tell the story. In this example, the ping does that job. There is something interesting that people need, so the character alerts others. Need to ping a gun? It tells a story in the game of someone looking for it, getting it, and getting stronger for it. Need a ping for an upgrade? Same story.
Narrative designers bring art, sound, writing and programming together to tell a story through practice.
Narrative design is not (only) game design
Depending on how companies organize themselves or the size of the team, game designers can end up doing a lot of narrative work. The overlap that I mentioned helps with that. You need to be savvy with storytelling to understand broader game design as well.
So why isn’t it game design? Narrative design touches on mechanics, can make lines… and does not make writing in the strict sense. Sounds like a game designer, right?
No. It’s a completely different pair of sleeves. Game designers manage the mechanics, rules, and levels. You structure a game. Understand how people play it and have fun. They bring together art, programming, storytelling, sounds and rules to create space.
Think of it like a game of AFL or cricket. You have to design the ball, what the rules are, how many players are allowed on the pitch, how a team scores, what counts as cheating… it’s all game design. The art is on the pitch and the team shirts; programming is what happens when the rules start playing in the game.
None of this is narrative.
What is narrative is the story told in action. The game from start to finish “They wore out the last three batsmen in the opening overs. Who can stop bowlers? It’s a disaster!” Next, strides number four, breaking sixes and taking runs.
Context: Narrative designers work with context. A game designer can say that the game is in space. You have a big ship that does everything, and you have to blow up the other player’s big ship with smaller ships. You mine asteroids to get resources to build your ships. You lose if the other players blow up your big ship. Now go blow things up!
Looks like this game could be a lot of things. With context, I’m talking about homeworld. For those playing at home, it’s a strategy game where you rescue people from exile. You must return to the first house they came from, while a crumbling empire attempts to stop them.
Remember. The context. That’s your job as a narrative designer.
So what are you doing now?
A lot to do! Unfortunately, a lot of game work still focuses on cities and uses A LOT of technology. You need lots of internet data and stable connections to work with version control. Unreal Engine and Godot can seem scary without a programmer. Having sparkly assets is nice, but you’ll have to learn tools like Blender and Asperite.
But I can offer you some tips for designing narrative content. To start, you can write a script or process for the screen. There is an overlap between the TV screen and the computer screen. Working with either can help you learn how to lay out a level. What should a character (the player) do? What are they looking for? Why? Learn how to present it in a way that others can read it.
Choose a team sport. Believe it or not, start early and learn to work as a team. An average worker who will work with his team at all times is better than a snobby, aloof genius. An “ideas man” doesn’t do much for the team. They’re good for laughs, but no one likes them. The deadliest thing you can be is a team player who shows up, gets the job done, and uplifts others.
Subscribe to places like gamedeveloper.com, GDC Vault, and gameindustry.biz. Game developers usually want to share their stuff. Once you’re sorted with the lingo, check out these places. There are much smarter people writing smart stuff there.
Finally… most important… you need a wallet. Make a game, any game, but do it. And no, you’re not doing anything for The Game Awards 2022. Forget being on the E3 floor. There are plenty of tools out there that speed up development, but most games require 20-200 person efforts. It’s your first game. If you can create a 2D infinite runner or a text RPG… ripper, beauty. Put it on a website and use it as a job application.
Join game jams on itch.io or the Global Game Jam. You will meet people you don’t know to create a video game. Get out of your comfort zone to do something cool. You can do it alone, go with your mob and form a team, or join some strangers. The goal is to create a game.
It’s always scary to dive into games. But even if you do it as a hobby, the game developer needs more Blakfullas. There is a place for crowds in games, and we can do that today.
Stay safe, youse mob. And share a chocolate cake with your grandmother, if you can.
Samara-Jade Sendek is a freelance narrative designer and writer. See his tweets at @jadedsynic.