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What do you mean by ‘Narrative Design’?

Fellow narrative designer (and all around great guy) Rob Morgan sometimes introduces himself in talks as ‘a narrative designer, whatever that is’, and it’s always stuck with me. I cannot help but appreciate the sentiment, having witnessed the term ‘narrative designer’ used to describe a variety of roles and jobs in talks, job descriptions, and in normal conversation with colleagues. I don’t believe any of those different uses of the term were wrong or less significant than any other, but I do think they can be distinct, sometimes covered by different people on a team or requiring different skills.

In the interest of thinking about this a bit deeper and preventing the title from meaning so many things that it functionally means very little, here are the three main kinds of narrative design I have come across. This list is almost certainly not exhaustive, but I hope it acts as a good starting point for discussion, and inspires you to examine your own thoughts on the subject.

 

Design for Narrative (or Narratology)

This is probably the oldest, and maybe most obvious, use of the term: the narrative designer as, well, the designer of narrative. This is not limited to games, and many (if not all) writers practise this form of narrative design. By understanding the ups and downs of a story and the experience of the story by the reader (or player), this kind of narrative designer organises and crafts the story with a variety of different perspectives in mind (pacing, tension, themes and narrative beats to name a few) in order to enable a particular experience by the reader.

This is made more complicated by interactive narratives (consider the many factors presented here). Whether it means keeping in mind the different pacing implied by rearranging the modular blocks of an interactive narrative, or considering the entire narrative possibility space of a procedural system, this kind of narrative designer often calls upon an understanding of the specific game structure being used as well as the building blocks of narrative to achieve their goals.

 

Narrative Level Design

Shifting a bit from writing towards game design, there is a category I would call narrative level design. This kind of narrative designer is particularly interested in the story of getting from point A to point B. They might need to explain why a player must accomplish a particular goal or why the player cannot stray from a specific path. Conversely, this kind of narrative designer may be called upon to lay out the player’s quest or path in order to match a particular section of story.

Often, for a single game, it will be a mix of all these things. As with much design work, it is invisible when done well, as the level and story of the level seem to fit so naturally that they could have only been conceived together.

 

Mechanical Narrative Design

Finally, a personal fascination of mine, the mechanical narrative designer. This kind of narrative designer must consider the narrative inherent in the game mechanics and systems: what the player does or is encouraged to do (explicitly through instruction and implicitly via optimal strategies). Often this kind of narrative design is carried out with an eye towards supporting a specific narrative and/or avoiding dissonance with a given narrative. This involves considering the feelings evoked in a player interacting with these mechanics, the literal and figurative actions being taken by the player, and modifying as necessary (either the narrative or the mechanics) to meet the desired goals.

Why is a story about love and friendship told mostly through killing enemies? Why is the narrative about experimentation when the system punishes the player for trying new things? What kind of feelings are evoked when players first encounter this mechanic, and what kind of story can I tell that fits it well? These are all questions the mechanical narrative designer asks, attempts to answer, and then figures out what can or needs to change as a result.

 

I think of these different types of narrative design as being somewhat distinct, even if there is often going to be overlap between the types for any given game (especially if you only have one person on the team paying attention to the narrative). Narrative design as a role within game development is still growing and changing, and understanding what we mean when we use the term goes a long way to helping us discuss it in the future. If you have anything to add to this list (I’m sure I’ve missed out plenty), or any thoughts about the three I’ve named here, give me a shout on twitter (@teapoweredteam) and tell me: what do you mean when you say ‘narrative design’?

 

Dustin

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