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Narrative Design And The Impending Tragedy Of Getting What You Ask For
by Anthony Hart-Jones on 11/02/09 06:14:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Last week, my manager approached the design team about a game on a very short time-scale, asking what we needed.  Considering the story requirements, I said that we needed a narrative designer and a whole lot of creative freedom.  Then I put myself forward for the narrative designer role.

I expected a fight, maybe even a refusal.  I didn't expect to be given the job...

So what is a Narrative Designer then and why would you want one working on your game?

Steven Dinehart gives a fairly good introduction to the role in his blog [link] - "While the strict definition may vary from team to team, and production to production, the core of this role is to champion story, craft compelling narrative elements, and define the systems through which they will delivered to the player." - okay, that seems to makes sense.  Why does this role exist though?  Why can't we leave it to the writer or the game designer?

I won't lie; you can let the designers and the writers do this together, but it tends not to be pretty.  Games designers and writers, even games writers, don't actually speak the same language.  This is much the same as designers and artists and coders, who don't always seem to have a language or even alphabet in common. 

At its simplest level, a narrative designer is the one who tries to make sure that the storyline and dialogue match the art and the design, that the story is carried forward even if the game doesn't have more than three character models and has no VO.  It is the narrative designer who makes sure that, if the dialogue mentions a white tux, the art includes a white tux, and if the code doesn't support a white tux, neither the artists nor the writers are even thinking of a white tux. 

It is the narrative designer who rewrites the dialogue at short notice when the publisher's lawyer suddenly decides on the first day of recording that  you can't have a parody of Monty Python's Cheese Shop Sketch.  So why would any sane person want to be a narrative designer? (I'll give you a hint, it is not for the money.)

The answer is (in my case) control.  I don't mean as in a promotion or even the chance to shout at people, but more about more about being in a position to keep the story from falling apart.  When things are going well, it is checking up on what everyone is doing and reminding them that the story calls for a drive-thru restaurant, not a sit-down one. 

When the 'midden hits the windmill', it is about being able to tell the artists 'you signed off on a white Tux' and know that it will probably be white by the time I finish asking the coders if we can possibly manage the sepia tone for the dream sequences that the artists and designers are talking about. 

In the end, I suppose it is just a little bit about being able to tell the lead designer 'leave it with me' and have him know that I won't spare the clue-bat if the story starts to fall out of shape.

I suppose there is one last question; what kind of masochist volunteers for such a job? 

I come from a  theatre background, having been a playwright and a director in my time.  I have taken so many roles in theatre, from stage-hand to artistic director, because I believe that "the play's the thing" (even if I don't care about the king's conscience).  I am still enough of an idealist to think it needs doing, but cynical enough to know that I had better do it if I want it done.

So a mad-man, certainly.  But a mad-man in good company...

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Donald Crank
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I'm not a professional in the industry, or anything, but I've been wondering about questions similar to these a bit recently.

Looking back on games in the N64 era, it seems like most of them are crap. The same goes for the PS2 era. But one category of games seems to be pretty decent to this day, nearly regardless of the year of creation. Miyamoto's works, to me, seem to be the most resiliant against the passage of time. The thing about his stuff that still clicks is the interaction between the visual aspect of the level, and the gameplay aspect. More and more I feel like the worst thing you could say about something in a game generically is: "I bet an artist designed that puzzle (cause it looks so visually appealing)" or "I bet a programmer modeled that statue (because it is so generic that there are two hundred of them throughout the game and I never noticed the repetition)"

Even a lot of seriously high profile franchises have this issue out the wazoo.

Anyway, the idea of a coordinator between story, art, code, and so forth is great, and probably necessary but it scares me, as something emerging in the industry, because, as an artist with an interest in writing, the concept of creative control is what everything is about. But as I look over job postings on this site and others, I am beginning to feel that artists are essentially assembly line workers with a higher degree of talent. But... you got to know everything to know anything in the world of art or writing (and I bet programming and music and so on). 'A jack of all trades but a master of none' is a hell of a paradox.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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I am a big fan of Miyamoto's work; his whole approach seems to be that of a game telling a story. Donkey Kong was simplistic in terms of its narrative, but the story was visible and consistent. Jumpman's pet monkey kidnapped his girlfriend and ran off into a construction site. That explains the levels, it explains how you defeat him in the end, it even explains how a giant monkey was ever in a position to kidnap a woman who would later be named Pauline.

At the moment, there is an interesting interview here with Marc Laidlaw and Eric Wolpaw from Valve. I have to admit that Half-Life was the next time a story really made me sit up and take notice. It is not a great stretch of the imagination to say that Half-Life would never have really taken off without the sublime storytelling that worked to explain and justify the game. Marc Laidlaw, despite his modesty, took a new storytelling medium and just ran with it. He set something in motion that pulled in others, making designers think about whether the game was a skeleton for the story or the story was the skeleton that gave form and meaning to the game. And then Valve gave us not only GLaDOS, but also Left 4 Dead's emergent storytelling paradigm.

As to assembly-line workers, isn't that how we all feel? It was only last week that David Surman said much the same thing about designers in a British games conference...

Anthony Hart-Jones
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It is typical that I go and miss the reply from the person who possibly did most to define the role.

I have to admit that I got half caught-up in the sales-pitch, since I wrote this right off the back of trying to sell the idea to management. In theory, a narrative designer should be the last hope of keeping the story together; they might not be able, but they are probably the one most suited to trying.

Almost a month later, the truth of the matter is that I got the job and I did not; the management agreed (though the lead designer is sceptical) that I was right for the role and that the role was going to be needed if we get the chance to make the game, but the game is not guaranteed until the publisher signs on the dotted line. That's fair enough; it is not worth giving me the job if our next game is a sliding-block puzzle simulator. Until then, or the next story-based game, I am just a games designer who occasionally does some work as an in-house writer.

It is gratifying to see that even managers, often thought divorced from reality and chasing numbers more than art, are actually aware of and interested in the value of good interactive storytelling. We can all name examples of storytelling gone wrong and often what it was that probably went wrong, so I suppose it might be less a case of 'here is a way to make your game better' and more 'here is a possible solution to certain known issues'.