A fun and frustrating part of narrative design and video game writing are that the tools we rely on haven’t yet been standardised to the same extent as other disciplines. There are some mainstays but at the same time, there are a lot of options. If you’re just getting started in game narrative here are a few of my go-to options. I’ve used the following in various ways on multiple projects and would recommend getting to grips with them based on what takes your fancy and level of comfort with the soft-programming side of game writing.
This is just high level details I may do full breakdowns of how I use them in future posts.
Excel and spreadsheet programs are a necessary evil. One that many teams end up using despite every effort being made to avoid them. Excel is great at holding, managing and manipulating data which means it is a part of many content pipelines for games. Simultaneously incredibly easy and confusing as fuck to use. Excel is something both narrative designers and game writers need to be comfortable with.
For the narrative side of games, you need to know a bit more than basic data entry. I’d recommend learning some simple formulas, especially on how to take the contents of multiple cells and combine them in various ways. Also, look at using it to manage and track things like voice lines.
There are quite a few example game script and story spreadsheets out there. Use them, pull them apart, rebuild them from scratch. Better yet, make an equivalent that works for you.
It is safe to say that Twine has stood the test of time. I still regularly play great games made using Twine’s branching structure. The simple side of it is simple enough that anyone can make a piece of interactive fiction. The more complex side of it means that anyone can make a very fancy piece of interactive fiction with many bells and whistles.
It has been a while since I jumped back into twine but it is always worth it.
Ink & Inky
I see and use ink (and its free editor Inky) as the next logical step after getting to grips with Twine. While there is a steep learning curve when it comes to doing anything beyond basic branching it is worth it. Inky and Ink are hella robust and allow you to branch within branches in little and large ways. Ink’s weaves and knots are powerful tools that allow you to do some truly inventive narrative design. It is a language made for branching narrative designed by a team that live and breath branching narratives. As you use Ink you can see how 80 Days, Heavens Vault and Inkle’s other titles have aided in the development of the language.
The other big wins are that it’s open-source and can integrate with Unity.
I’ve been banging the articy:draft drum for a long time. As a tool it is incredibly powerful. You just have to get over the initial humps of setting it up, learning the interface and then integrating it into the pipeline for the game you’re making. Thankfully the learning process is a breeze with an inbuilt and unobtrusive tutorial tool. One that I regularly dive into as part of day to day use.
It is flexible too. It can just be your dev home for all things narrative or a database of everything in your game. The visual interface and scripting within it give you something between Twine and Ink. Without getting too overwhelming. Being billed as a professional level tool means it has export options for days including Unity and Unreal.
I’ve not used Obsidian in a professional capacity yet mainly because I am still learning the ins and outs of it. Since I discovered it a few months ago it has quickly become my go-to notes app, D&D campaign manager, ideation space and more.
Wiki-style linking Obsidian uses is great for many reasons. It helps you connect everything. Then from a game design and development point of view, it allows you to get familiar and play around with wiki editing in a private space. Something I wish I had years ago. It is also has a healthy community of obsessives making free add-ons for it that work across the various platforms Obsidian is available on. With the add-on ranging from simple interface upgrades to robust tools in their own right. All built on the back of Obsidian’s mark-up tools.
There is a BIG caveat: Obsidian for all its power has a steep learning curve and protracted setup process. Trust me you will be fiddling with settings for weeks and months per project vault.
If Obsidian is too much of a mountain to climb finding the notes app that suits you and your workflow is key. For years Bear was my go-to. Others swear by One Note. Do some searching and find the app that will allow you to be creative in the way you like to work. Obsidian fits me because I am a chaotic mess of ideas and linking those ideas together allows me to find the gems and real truth of what I am trying to say.