Narrative Design Analysis

One of the best ways to learn about narrative design is to simply play games and experience the stories they tell first hand. EASY PEASY! However there is a difference between playing something and looking deeply at how it tells its story. This is where the Narrative Design Analysis template I use comes in handy.

I starting doing game design analysis notes years ago based on an old Gamasutra article I can no longer find. (Sorry to the person who inspired this, I want to give you credit!) Then as my work focus shifted from game design to narrative design I altered the template to be more useful to me.

Just have the template set up in your notes app of choice. Then copy and fill it out when you’ve either finished a game’s story or decided to stop playing it. For lots of games I keep it fairly high level but for a few I will go super in depth and break things down accordingly. Some of the prompts require more detail than others to fully answer but the whole thing usually takes me around 10-20mins to fill out.

The Narrative Design prompts are the main focus with the General Notes serving as mini review/context for the narrative notes.

Things to remember:

  • Bullet points are your friend and will keep things concise!
  • This is for you so use whatever personal short hand you prefer.
  • Re-read the notes you’ve made every once in a while.
  • You will miss things and that’s fine, the methods and ideas that jump out to you are key.

Anyway here is the template followed by a filled out example:

Template

Key Info

  • Title:
  • Platform:
  • Genre:
  • Playtime:
  • Made by:

Narrative Design

  • What are the methods of narrative delivery?
  • What created dissonance between the player, story and game?
  • What are the stand out narrative moments?

General Notes

  • What is the really good stuff in the game?
  • Are there any possible improvements?
  • What is the core of the game?
  • What did the game mean to you?

Key Takeaways

  • Takeaway 1
  • Takeaway 2
  • Takeaway 3

Example – Cyberpunk 2077

LEGAL NOTE: The views and opinions expressed below are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of my employer.

Key Info

  • Platform: PS4 (running on PS5)
  • Genre: Openworld ARPG
  • Playtime: ~50 hours
  • Made by: CD Projekt Red

Narrative Design

  • What are the methods of narrative delivery?
    • World and Environment Design
      • Each area of the city feels unique, has its own style and controlling faction
      • Billboards and advertisements (news feed in elevators)
      • Meticulous environmental design of some areas tells some really interesting stories – abandoned mall area was meant to be a hip new area but eventually became a demilitarised zone
      • Pick a direction to walk in and you’ll quickly find something interesting to look at.
      • I rarely fast travel instead I prefer to hop on my bike or in a car, crank up the radio and drive – soaking it all in
    • Data Shards, Files and Emails
      • Backstory text files found in the environment
      • Range from conversations to book excerpts to news articles and more
      • Completely optional to read but you get a richer understanding of the world if you engage with them
      • Really help connect the dots of the setting – which can be a very confusing place at times
      • Lots of duplication which is a good and bad thing
        • Good: It means you’re more likely to find important lore
        • Bad: If you’re actively hunting these collectibles down you see the same things again and again, and again.
    • Radio
      • Adds flavour to the world
      • Keeps the player updated on key events
      • Great way to be in and of the world while driving between points on the map
    • NPC Details
      • Procedural??? – or at least randomised
      • Key info on scanned NPCs – criminal history, current standing, etc.
      • Micro details tell a story on their own
      • This content is very small on screen and presented as part of a more gameplay focused enemy info
    • Branching
      • Yellow text
        • Branches the conversation and advances the story
        • If you have multiple yellow options that is often a point of no return in the convo
        • Player is shaping their version of V with these choices
        • Implications on the wider story – subtle and overt changes
      • Blue text
        • Optional “more details please” dialogue, mainly conversational but can lead to extra rewards and options if you have the right skills
      • Icons
        • Life path specific choices
        • These are great when they pop up and make that lifepath choices feel important
      • Skill based choices
        • Can be under or over skilled which blocks options which is cool
        • No chance of failure, you either have the right stat range on the check or not.
    • Missions and Side Missions
      • Missions take you into the heart of an area of the city and introduce you to the faction that controls it which is either informed by or informs side gigs depending on your approach.
      • Lots of engaging with NPCs and V very much being in the middle of things
      • Choices and approach can effect the overall story of the game (in small ways) or just mission (medium ways) or even encounter (big ways)
      • Side missions allow you to get to know secondary characters and even romance some of them
      • Main missions are overall quite serious – Side missions a mix of serious, lighthearted and absurd
    • Side Gigs
      • No impact on the main narrative but inform the story of areas of the city and NPC factions
      • Stopping crimes, stealing stuff, dealing with cyber psychos, etc.
    • Your V (and Jonny)
      • The great thing about the game’s stats and perks system is that it really does impact how you interact with the world.
        • Stats give you specific dialogue choices and micro branches
        • Stats also allow you to access different areas in different ways (high strength forcing doors open, high tech picking locks)
        • Perks give you a unique toolset that reflects and enhances your style of play and in turn your V as a character.
      • Your relationship with Jonny also impacts your V – moving them closer or further apart has implied implications on the narrative even if they’re payed off or not.
      • My Nomad pistol wielding super hacker and crafter V feels unique to me
      • In conversations with other characters, V is a character in the vain of Geralt. Somewhat defined in terms of their personality but you direct their approach to a situation.
      • The female V (props to the voice work) really gives players a licence to regularly say, fuck it and cut loose and it works. It doesn’t feel like it has a negative impact or is the “bad or evil choice” it is just one of many approaches V could have had to the situation.
  • What created dissonance between the player, story and game?
    • The city only moves when you move
      • Stuff that should be random chance encounters are fixed events
        • Most Blue icons break the narrative realty of the game – the mugging will be happening forever until you decide to intervene.
        • Side gig in a diner that caused it to become subject to attempted robbery – It didn’t feel like random chance it all felt very forced.
      • Some missions and content requires waiting for time to move but most do not – I failed an interesting side mission involving V’s neighbour because I thought the game would wait for me – it didn’t. This is the only case I’ve seen of this behaviour in the game. Which leads me to think it is either a fake out or holdover from more day/night cycle based content.
      • I’m pretty sure the cops have been surveying the crime scene outside of V’s apartment for a good few months of in-game time at this point.
    • Broke the logic/order of a few story beats in a few missions – minor quibble but still annoying.
    • Escalation in missions often happens off screen and is confusing as a result. You get a call telling you shit is hitting the fan then you deal with the aftermath. Which makes V very reactionary as a protagonist at times.
    • BUGS the odd bug here and there in a game is fine, it is part of what makes games…games but man there are so many minor bugs that they are a compounding issue.
      • The glitch effect on Jonny doesn’t work as intended most of the time, he flashes a weird blue or a flat texture of the glitch effect that should surround him displays in front of him.
      • Key story and mission locations are littered with minor issues that compound to create a full break in immersion in the world. Floating lampposts, characters walking through walls or t-posing. Stuff loading in too late or not at all
    • V is an item vacuum with inventory full of useless junk that quickly becomes meaningless
  • What are the stand out narrative moments?
    • Convo with Johnny post interrogation, it gets philosophical in a good way. It was the moment I got his character and why he behaves the way he does.
      • Just to note: The main narrative is pretty strong overall.
    • Some side mission chains are really interesting
      • Convicted criminal planning to live stream their execution – it skirts the line of decency and uses the setting of the game to talk about the issues of today.
      • Street racing storyline has layers – It is just a shame you have to take part in the most boring racing sections to get to the good stuff.
    • Jonny flashbacks – they always happen at the right time, give you just enough info and really flesh out the backstory of the world.

General Notes

  • What is the really good stuff in the game?
    • V as a character (at least female V) is surprisingly well realised and consistent regardless of the choices you make.
    • Different areas of the city have their own look and feel
    • At higher levels the combat is that good kind of chaotic, sit just takes a long time to get to that point.
  • Are there any possible improvements?
    • Fixing all the minor bugs….
    • Making the open world city feel more like an open world city. It is currently this weird theme park where things only happen because you are there.
    • More / Stronger side mission chains that focus on interacting with the various factions that make up the city. You only really engage with them on the main path. It would be cool to pick sides and play things out from there (like the faction choices seen in similar games like Skyrim/Fallout)
    • More lifepath content! One of the best things in the game and it is over so quickly and mostly ignored apart from the odd choice here or there.
    • Be less offensive for clicks – This is more to do with the games marketing but there is some semblance of it in the game. If you know, you know.
  • What is the core of the game?
    • Being a super badass merc in a cyberpunk dystopia.
  • What did the game mean to you?
    • A missed opportunity,
    • Some great moments of narrative mired by the mess around them both in and out of the game.

Key Takeaways

  • Make the cities in your games feel like cities
  • Block branches by being over skilled rather than under skilled (very fun idea)
  • Don’t release games before they are ready

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