Forgive me for this indulgence but it is a rite of passage for any person talking about narrative in game dev. It needs to be done. I need to talk about what exactly a narrative designer is! Also, narrative roles in general because there is still an element of confusion around all of them.
The mixed ideas around what narrative roles there are and should be stem from a few things. Mainly the organic way these roles started appearing in the games industry. Then how they spread to various studios and teams. The result of which is that every panel on narrative for games has to take up a chunk of time defining what it is we do.
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.
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:
The more time I spend working in the games industry doing what I do in the realm of Narrative Design. The more reactions and raw emotions I see towards the idea of Story Structure Guides. On a good day the reaction towards them is one of keen interest and understanding. On a bad day it is a look of disgust, horror and pure hatred.
These various story diagrams, cheat sheets, books and outline templates are everywhere. They are mainly geared around screenwriting but are often useful for other forms of writing and story plotting. Some are nothing more than 3 statements to guide your thoughts. Others are….well….this thing…
I’m not here to convince you that they’re an essential tool for all narrative designers. Each creative has their own process, I’m just going to share mine. However I will say that there different kinds of storyteller and you should respect their approach to problem solving. The sooner you start treating others’ creative processes with the same respect you would like your own to be treated the more you will learn from them and they you.
So to begin, here are the two basic types of storyteller:
Pantsers – Those who get an idea, sit down and write the crap out of it. Editing, fixing and rewriting on the go or afterward.
Plotters – Those who plan out their story in as much detail as possible before sitting down to write. Preempting roadblocks with a loose roadmap to steer their writing.
The reality is that most of us do a mix of raw unfiltered writing and hyper detailed planning. Some lean heavily on one side over the other but there will come a point where the plotter just needs to stop messing with diagrams and actually do some damn writing. Meanwhile the pantser will hit a major roadblock and will need to break down the problem before being able to continue.
The modern myth of the writer is that they are all tortured pantser artists. (An interesting mental image) A myth that often extends to narrative design. You know the one, the muse speaks to the the writer and the words just flow out of their fingertips. Getting the muse to speak to them is the problem because the muse can be cruel. Drink, drugs, and a montage later. Somehow the story has been finished, but at what cost?
It is a myth that personally stopped me of doing any kind of professional storytelling for most of my life because I don’t do words gud most of the time due to my dyslexia. I need time and a plan. Also diagrams are cool! That is why all this stuff is so useful and fascinating for me. It’s how I tap into my creative energy.
Some will find this useful and will hopefully nod along as they read. Some will make that dismissive “pffft” sound, give up halfway through reading and then write a subtweet about this post. They know better than me, at least when it comes to their own creative process so go them!