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What Is Narrative Design? And How Do I Get Better At It?

What Is Narrative Design? And How Do I Get Better At It?

I wrote this post to provide a clear overview on the craft of narrative design and how you can get started.

Everything is based on my first hand experience from pivoting from a different discipline to narrative design (from scratch).

I’ll be covering these three main topics:

  • What is narrative design?
  • What is “good” narrative design?
  • How do you train your narrative design skills?

But before we dive in, it’s important to remember: The first step to being a good narrative designer is to be a good game designer.

Narrative design is a sub-discipline of game design, which means you are a game designer first. Refine the basics before you specialize.

If you haven’t already, I recommend you check out Alex’s posts on game mechanics and becoming a video game designer. These will provide great fundamental overview of the craft and path of game design.

Alright. Let’s get into it.

What is Narrative Design Under Video Game Design?

Game development is a young field, and narrative design is even younger. In fact, the term “narrative design” was first used in games in 2006. That was less than 18 years ago. Narrative design can’t even vote yet!

In many ways, this is exciting. We’re still exploring narrative design and discovering new expectations and conventions. Every year designers come up with new ways of engaging the player.

But it also means that any “rules” I tell you about narrative design will have exceptions. At one studio, I worked closely with writers to turn story into gameplay. At another, writers came in after implementation to provide feedback and copy edit.

That being said, let’s go over the fundamentals of narrative design and how it’s different from other game studio roles.

Narrative Design is Not Game Writing

As a narrative designer, you work closely with the story, but you are not a game writer. You may have input on the plot, characters, or lore, but it is rare that you will actually write the storyline.

Often, narrative designers are bringing other people’s visions to life. A writer may bring a script, pitch, or idea to you, and it is then your job as the narrative designer to make that idea happen. You take plot and turn it into gameplay.

Narrative design can be a good fit for people who are interested in storytelling but want to focus on the player experience. Other team members will create cutscenes, dialogue, barks, and item descriptions, but you’ll be using these building blocks to enhance gameplay.

How Does Narrative Design Mix with Mechanics and Systems Design

The narrative designer acts as the cross-discipline bridge between the story and the systems and mechanics. This involves two main types of work (which might be done by the same designers, depending on the studio):

    1. Narrative systems
    2. Narrative content

Narrative systems designers create the systems through which the story will be told. Dialogue, NPC behavior, morality, stealth, crime… all these systems affect the kinds of experiences the player can have.

New designers have a tendency to focus on dialogue, but the systemic interactions you have with the world can be just as, if not more, impactful.

A game like Dishonored is a perfect example of this. It tells its story primarily through the world’s reactions. Whether the player uses violent or non-violent approaches, narrative designers have carefully determined how those gameplay decisions affect NPC reactions and the environment.

Later in development, narrative content designers are responsible for coming up with quests, NPCs, towns, vignettes, and so on.

Although this role involves writing, these designers are also thinking in terms of the game itself. They account for the series of choices the player can make, turning a linear experience into an interactive one.

  • What if the player is attacked here?
  • What if the player wants to attack this NPC?
  • What if the player has been skipping all the dialogue; will they understand their objective?
  • How do I cope with knowing players see the story as a barrier to playing the game? 😭

Narrative designers consider these questions and turn a script on paper into a dynamic game.

What is “Good” Narrative Design?

I’m sure you’re tired of hearing this by now, but it depends. There is no hard and fast rule for “good” narrative design. What works for one game is not going to necessarily work for another.

Games focused on cinematic, linear stories will have very different requirements than games focused on branching, choice-heavy stories. Like all game design, narrative design is beholden to the game’s high level goals.

But because “it depends” isn’t particularly useful advice, here are three guidelines that will help with almost any narrative design project:

  • Put Gameplay First
  • Match the Story to Your Players’ Motivation
  • Plot Out Storyline Arcs

Put Gameplay First

When we talk about our favorite games, we often talk about our favorite stories. We talk about moments that we remember, characters that we loved, or worlds that entranced us.

Even when talking about gameplay, players usually describe the game through narrative wrappers, not the mechanics themselves. We don’t “cause a damage-over-time effect;” we “inflict poison.” We don’t “exhaust the game’s available text options;” we “talk with Garrus.”

Because we often interpret the wrapper as the game, there can be a tendency to value story too highly. Storytelling is certainly important. But if the gameplay isn’t good, players will never be excited about the poison or pay attention to the writing. Gameplay must come first.

If changing a mechanic would result in better gameplay but would require changing the story, change the story. No matter how attached to it you are, the story is always more flexible than the gameplay.

If your game idea starts with the story, it probably shouldn’t be a game. It might make for a great book or movie, but games start with gameplay. A narrative designer must make the story work within gameplay’s “box.”

Match The Story to Your Players’ Motivation

A major goal of narrative design is what I call Emotional/Motivational Parity. The player’s motivations (created through gameplay) should match the emotional beats of the story.

When story and gameplay aren’t aligned, we risk breaking the player’s immersion. The story and gameplay contradicting each other can snap the player out of the experience and sever the suspension of disbelief.

At best, this is humorous; “Press F to Pay Respects.” At worst, this is frustrating or insulting; the ending of Mass Effect being distilled down to “red, green, or blue.” The $10 word for this experience is “ludonarrative dissonance.”

The easiest way to avoid ludonarrative dissonance is to ensure what the player wants to do is also what the story is asking the player to do.

This sounds simple, but story often competes against gameplay for the player’s attention. It’s common for writers to include lots of exposition early in the game, but if it delays or interrupts gameplay, players may get irritated or ignore it because they’re not yet invested.

Dark Souls games, on the other hand, have little explicit storytelling, but are often heralded for their lore and story anyway. The strange, Gothic world and story complement the brutal gameplay; the rare cutscenes are a reward, not an interruption.

Plot Out Storyline Arcs

Arc diagrams are a tool I use for visualizing pacing and progression. They can help you catch potential problems early on. I most often use arcs to help me plan out quests, but arcs are also useful for plotting out a character’s development or a level’s gameplay beats.

Let’s look at examples of a bad arc and a good arc. We’ll start with this (fake) quest pitch:

The city of Corbach is under siege by a horde of undead. Bjorn, a local cleric, has a plan to bless the nearby river, creating a near-endless supply of holy water. However, blessing the river draws the attention of the necromancer creating the undead.

The pitch provides a baseline. Let’s break up the idea into gameplay beats.

  • Enter Corbach
  • Speak with Bjorn
  • Travel to the River
  • Bjorn blesses the River
  • Boss Fight

At a glance, this looks like a perfectly fine quest, but in this form, we’re lacking context. How these gameplay beats are presented will dramatically change the player’s experience. To better grasp the player’s experience, let’s plot these beats using an intensity arc.

This quest starts with a high intensity combat before the player can enter the town. An arc like this risks the player becoming numb or fatigued before they reach the final boss.

Let’s try a different approach to this pitch, that uses high and low intensity gameplay to make your story beats more impactful.

Now we’ve broken up the quest into more granular chunks and introduced a couple new beats to give us a more interesting arc. The “Swarms of Enemies” now appears later, after we’ve slowly built up to it.

We’ve also made “The Guarded Chamber” its own beat, separate from combat, allowing time for environmental storytelling and mood setting.

Finally, rather than letting the boss fight occur immediately after high intensity combat, we’re using a brief pause to give greater impact to the finale.

While these two versions come from the same pitch, minor changes can make dramatic differences.

Now that we’ve established what’s considered as “good” narrative design, let’s get into how you can practically train and improve your narrative design skills.

If you’re serious about getting hired as a narrative designer make sure you get these two parts down:

  1. Your ability to showcase and communicate your skills to the game studios. Here are a few additional resources to help you do that:
  2. Your narrative design and game design skills to make and implement good design judgements.

After trying different ways to improve my narrative design skills, these are the three methods that helped me level up the most.

1. Critically Consume Game Stories and Other Media

Good writers borrow. Great writers steal. This maxim holds just as true to games as it does to writing. For example, I stole that quote from T. S. Eliot, and now you probably think I’m very clever.

But seriously. Don’t concern yourself with “new ideas.” As you’re playing games, reading books, watching movies, and so on, pay attention to what you like and what you don’t. Critically consuming media is one of the fastest ways to improve.

Remember, “critically” is the key word here.

And make sure you assess what you intentionally consume through both lens of game design and narrative design.

It’s not enough to be passive; you must ask yourself questions and evaluate why you feel the way you do. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What moment stood out to you? What made it memorable?
  • Did you ever get lost or confused? How did you figure out what to do?
  • Were there beats you would have changed? Why do you think they made the choices they did? (Think about their process and restrictions, not just their creative choices.)
  • (For non-game media) How would you capture this feeling in a game? What’s the simplest and easiest to develop version? If you had more resources, what would you focus on?

When you discover mechanics, systems, and stories that you are drawn to, put those elements in your game. It may feel like stealing at first, but as you iterate and build (and steal more), you’ll end up with something that is uniquely yours.

If you’re really serious about getting better at game design, I recommend you to checkout the First Principles of Game Design Immersion Program, which dives deep into these types of guided exercises.

This is a paid program where you can learn how to improve your design decisions with the personal feedback and guidance from Alex. I went through it myself, which really accelerated my path into getting hired.

2. Create Your Own Games

One of the best ways to hone your narrative design skills is to make text based games using a free open source software called Twine, which is a great way to build branching, story-heavy games.

If you’re not sure what to do, I’m currently in the process of  making a tutorial on how to get started in Twine, making text based games.

(If you want to get notified via when it’s ready, make sure you subscribe here.)

While practicing your storytelling skills, think critically about all the component parts that contribute to your game’s narrative experience:

  • Which narrative beats should every player experience, and which only work on certain branches? Try plotting arcs for each possible path through a quest.
  • Do you want your item descriptions to communicate function, add atmosphere, or give specific information that could affect players’ decisions?
  • Analyze the big picture. How does each major decision point affect which characters, story elements, and mechanics the player will interact with? Are these effects well signposted, or will the player be unpleasantly surprised?

Once you’ve got some individual practice, look for game jams or other opportunities to work with other designers.

Narrative designers need to be good collaborators and communicators so they can help the story and gameplay teams work together.

3. Play Your Games Critically

Arguably more than any other design discipline, narrative designers need a holistic understanding of the game. As the bridge between story and gameplay, you must understand both.

This understanding is only possible by playing the game you’re working on.

No matter how strong you think your comprehension of the mechanics and systems, it will never compare to actually stepping into the shoes of your player by playing your game.

Take the pitch from earlier. On paper, this looks like a solid quest, but it’s impossible to truly know how these beats feel until we can experience it through the game.

For example: Let’s say we’re building this quest in an isometric game. A beat that relies on environmental storytelling may not be effective. Once in the game, the restricted camera makes environment props difficult to notice, and the moment may feel boring instead of atmospheric.

It’s expected that your story won’t mesh with your gameplay on the first try. Iteration is an important part of game development. So try something else, and test again.

Final thoughts…

We covered a lot of information. Here are the main takeaways:

  • Narrative design is not the same as game writing. Rather, narrative designers act as the bridge between gameplay and story, using game mechanics and systems for storytelling.
  • Good narrative design puts the game first, using narrative to enhance and elevate gameplay.
  • The best narrative design aligns gameplay and story. When unaligned and fighting for attention, these two elements can result in ludonarrative dissonance.
  • The best way to practice narrative design is by making games and thinking critically about the games and media you’re consuming.

If you’re an aspiring dev specifically interested in narrative design, I also recommend you to checkout Alex’s post on how to become a video game designer.

If you have any additional thoughts or questions, feel free to share them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

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