How to Make a Narrative Design Portfolio (That’ll Get You Hired)
How to Make a Narrative Design Portfolio (That’ll Get You Hired)
For an aspiring game developer, narrative design is a challenging field to break into. On top of strong design fundamentals, you also need to be a competent writer and storyteller.
While you can communicate these talents in design tests and interviews, you won’t get to that point without a solid portfolio.
I have personally seen game studios turn down exceptional game writer candidates because their portfolios didn’t effectively showcase what they could do.
Alex has already written about building a game design portfolio to help you avoid this scenario and build a strong portfolio.
Here, I’ll dive into the specific details and context tailored to narrative design, which mainly focuses on three guidelines for making your narrative design portfolio as impactful as possible:
- Communication Skills
- Writing & Design Skill Range
- Interactivity and Choice
By the way, if you’re serious about becoming a game designer, I highly recommend you to check out Alex’s latest training.
He made it specifically to help those who feel stuck to get hired in the video game industry faster through practical insights, principles, and exercises.
You can join his training here. (It’s currently still free)
Showcase Your Communication Skills
Right away, your portfolio needs to show that you are a clear and effective communicator. Hopefully, it goes without saying that there shouldn’t be any grammar or spelling mistakes.
Tip: You can have a friend proofread and pay them a dollar for every mistake they find. This will motivate you to improve your grammar.
Tip 2: Get a Grammar checking software such as Grammarly.
But more than that, if I’m reviewing your portfolio, I need to get a sense of how you communicate professionally. Creating a clear, easy-to-understand document is crucial for any design role, and how you talk about yourself and your work tells me a lot about how you present information.
Using my own portfolio as an example, I speak concisely about my work, using pictures and videos to do the heavy lifting.
If you prefer a more verbose communication style, that can also be effective. Just be sure you aren’t burying your work underneath superfluous words.
Organize Your Portfolio for User Experience
A well-organized website is also a form of communication. Make it easy to find your content in the fewest clicks possible. No one wants to dig around through nested menus and drop downs to hunt down your best work.
There is no “right way” to lay out a portfolio, but the layout shouldn’t distract from the content. Personally, I use a simple home screen with direct links to my best work, organized by category.
I prefer to keep it clean and concise, using bullet points and lots of white space on the page.
Showcase Your Skill Range as a Writer & Designer
Optimize for Quality Over Quantity
Your narrative design portfolio also needs to show your talents as a writer. Quality is much more important than quantity here: realistically, the hiring manager will only read the first two or three writing samples.
Pick Your Strongest Fiction
Because of that, I recommend choosing fiction writing samples that highlight a range of writing experience, ideally including game narrative work.
For example, I lead with my three strongest samples that best show how I write dialogue, scenes, and lore (exposition). I also include a variety of tones, voices, scenes, environments, and characters in these samples.
In my experience, the writing samples you submit don’t have to be a perfect fit for the tone or genre of the studio.
You might want to swap the order of your samples if there’s an extreme mismatch (like intense gothic fiction when applying for a Sesame Street tie-in), but in general, just lead with your strongest work.
Besides those, I include five other pieces to show that I can write different types of stories. This demonstrates my range, but it’s not as important for the reviewer to read each one.
I would also recommend including a script if you have one, since script writing is often similar to game writing. (I don’t have one myself, but “do as I say, not as I do” and all that.)
Include Playable Work
In addition to your writing samples, you need a minimum of one playable work. If a game is too long for a studio to quickly review, include a playable demo and/or a video trailer highlighting your best contributions.
If your narrative design work isn’t in a published game yet, make an interactive story using free or cheap tools. Twine, CYOA stories, or even quest design docs will all work.
What’s important is that you show that you can incorporate interactivity and choice into your fiction.
Speaking of which…
Showcase Interactivity and Choice
Can You Make the Right Choice?
It isn’t enough to be a talented writer. Games have unique qualities and challenges as a storytelling medium.
As a narrative designer, you need to show you understand how to navigate and address ludonarrative dissonance (a topic that deserves its own blog post).
- What do you do when the game and story are at odds?
- Do you bend the game or the story first?
Being able to play through your interactive fiction will give a feel for your style as a narrative designer.
Keep It Short and Finished
When possible, it’s best to include short, finished works rather than long and unfinished ones.
Note: This applies to all design portfolios. Finished work is very important.
An elaborate, branching story is less impressive if it never ends. Show that you know how to complete projects, and how to write an ending.
That’s not to say you can’t have any prototypes, vertical slices, or game jam games. In fact, jam games are a great way to strengthen your portfolio.
I’ve included a few of my own in my portfolio. Just make sure they’re sharing space with more polished work.
To recap, here are the most important elements of a good narrative design portfolio:
- Keep your portfolio clear and concise.
- Don’t let a busy layout distract from your content.
- Include three strong writing samples that show your range.
- Make games! Interactive fiction is hard. Show that you’ve done it.
There’s a lot of info here, but remember, your portfolio is a constant work in progress. Don’t stress about making it perfect. Focus on improving and iterating. If you’re embarrassed of what you used to have, then you’re doing something right.
Here is a rule of thumb: If you’re embarrassed of what you used to have, then you’re doing something right.
For more content about game development and design breaking into the industry, go here.
Here are a few specific beginner pieces I recommend you to read:
- What are Video Game Mechanics
- How to Become a Video Game Designer
- How to Pass Video Game Design Tests
- Modern Game Design Document (Examples + Templates + Instructions)
If you have any questions or feedback, please comment below. I’d love to hear from you!
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2 thoughts on “How to Make a Narrative Design Portfolio (That’ll Get You Hired)”
My question is how do you break into a narrative role when they all (with the exception of the ever rare internship or writing for mobile studios) want previous experience? Usually you will see something like “must have 3-5 years of experience, must have worked in a narrative role on at least 1 AAA shipped game etc…”. Whether it is Riot, Naughty Dog, Blizzard etc… it is all the same, there is an ocean of experience they want for the narrative role.
So how the heck does the newbie overcome the almost insurmountable wall to get that first narrative job? And please don’t say internships, there are so few internships that at I am starting to thinking narrative/writing internships are more of a statical anomaly than an actual thing.
From my experience, you are 100% correct. Narrative design internships are basically nonexistent. I don’t know that I have ever seen one. You might have a better time with temporary or contract positions (that is where I got my start), but I think you’re asking more specifically about full time positions.
I do want to clarify that narrative design and writing are two very different jobs, each with their own challenges. I have friends that have struggled to find permanent writing positions, but I have not personally been through that. So, I’m not going to be able to offer much advice there.
As for narrative design, there are a couple of things that make it a difficult role to get into.
First: Not every studio is going to have a narrative designer. And not every studio is going to use narrative designers for the same thing. I’ve been a narrative designer at two different AAA studios, and my roles have been dramatically different. Pay attention to job descriptions; it’s possible studios are looking for narrative designers but just call them “game designers.”
Second: Narrative design is a sub discipline of game design. It is a specialization of game designer. (Alex has a post on the sub disciplines of game design; I recommend checking it out.) Many studios expect you to have experience as a game designer before you specialize as a narrative designer. Because of this, entry level narrative design roles are rare.
My advice to land your first narrative design position is to land your first game design position. As you gain experience, carve a niche that suits you. If that’s narrative design, great. Or you may find that you prefer a different sub discipline or even game writing. That’s also great. But it all starts with game design.