"Clear as mud" currently sums up the general state of clarity around what a Narrative Designer does. Or what Narrative Design itself actually is. So I'm going to attempt to clear things up a bit in this article.
Let's begin by stating the obvious.
Narrative Designers work in the video game industry.
Thankfully, game narratives have come a long way since these examples.
So now let's state the not-so-obvious.
Narrative Designers work with Story so that Play has Meaning.
Note that I'm dodging around the word 'writer'. Yes, words are a Narrative Designer's only method of communication, if you don't count Googled 'inspiration images' and the odd diagram.
But 'writer' tends to get you tagged and dropped into a very cramped box in the video games industry. "Oh, so you write the dialogue and the in-game text?" That's the all-to-frequent assumption. Yes, a Narrative Designer does that. But we also do a whole lot more.
Narrative Design - Actions speak louder than Words
When designing a narrative for a game, we have to remember that Actions, not Words, are the strongest way to express a story.
The player isn't there to read or listen.
The player is there to play.
So when it comes to a game, the Narrative Designer must think in Actions, first and foremost. Rather than telling the player a story, we are asking a player to take certain actions so that they will understand the story. Or in the case of Emergent Narrative, forge stories for themselves from the contexts we have designed for them.
It's a difficult concept to describe...in words. Luckily, this short film by Sebas and Clim does a great job of showing how simple Actions have the power to express the most subtle and nuanced of Words.
Narrative Designers help to create Game Concepts
Once upon a time, 'writers' were brought in near the end of the game to script dialogue and supply in-game text. Yes, Story was a bit of an afterthought. A cherry on top.
Thankfully, this is changing. Narrative Designers are now often there at the beginning of the process to ensure that Story and Gameplay walk hand in hand from premise to production. More and more, NDs are able to evolve game premises like 'kill a horde of monsters, collect a ton of loot and save the princess' into 'survive, grow as an individual and experience a meaningful relationship'.
The character arcs of Booker and Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite exemplify this, as does the relationship that forms between them.
We've come a long way since Donkey Kong. The question is...where to next? It's up to us NDs to work that out.
Narrative Designers build Worlds for Games
Before plot, before dialogue, before character even, there is World Building.
Where? When? Why is the world this way? Characters and creatures aren't set in an environment. Characters and creatures grow from an environment.
With sci-fi and fantasy worlds, everything needs to be decided. Climates. Cultures. Catastrophes...and a whole swag of other elements starting with 'C', and a few other letters to.
Even with strictly historical or contemporary environments, the 'Where', 'When' and 'Why' still need to be carefully selected from the contexts available.
The Norman invasion or the Norwegian invasion?
Why did the Normans win?
Why did the Norwegians lose?
Why were there two seemingly unconnected armies invading within days of each other?
Why was anybody invading at all?
A Narrative Designer's job is to answer the questions before the player can ask them.
So that's a quick 'once over' of what a Narrative Designer does for a video game. No, we haven't drilled down into the nitty gritty of character design, dialogue trees, story glyphs, flavour texts or the myriad of other narrative elements that a Narrative Designer wrangles during the course of a game's development. I'll save those details for follow-up articles.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with my favourite quote.
"Gameplay is what we do. Story is why we do it."