Analysis: Working the Narrative

Writing about writing is the inevitable fate of any writer – That was something I said at a university talk I once gave and here I am realising that fate. Writing in game development has a less precise career path compared to other roles. What are narrative or writing job roles actually called and what does someone in that role do?

“I tend to be a little discursive around the job title narrative designer,” said Rob Morgan, a freelance writer and narrative designer. “I start a lot of my talks by saying I’m a game writer and a narrative designer ‘whatever that is’. This isn’t out of any disrespect for narrative design. The role is a big part of my own job, and usually the most difficult part. But I think it’s fair to say that the job title means something different between the different companies that use it. For people looking to do this job it’s important to know that it’s a vital, but in many ways non-standardised, part of the industry. That’s no surprise since game jobs, perhaps especially story, text and objective-based jobs, are as varied as games are themselves.”

I went at it in multiple ways and did a lot of unpaid work early on to bolster my CV

Colin Harvey, Rebellion

“The narrative designer is a complex role which interfaces with so many other cross-functional team members (coders, artists, designers, producers) that there can be more than one route in,” says Liz Prince, recruitment specialist at Amiqus. “A typical cornerstone is writing, whether that be journalistic, script,

“A typical cornerstone is writing, whether that be journalistic, script, in game or creative story writing. The narrative design role requires an intimate understanding of many elements such as gameplay, engine capability, player journey, etc. This makes it tricky to transfer into the industry if all your writing is outside of games. For the same reason there are few entry level narrative design roles available and it’s typically a role people move in to having already started their games career.”

“Being a good writer or a good storyteller is not enough to get a job working in narrative design,” believes founder of Linx Agency, Benjamin Ryalls. “Games companies are looking for people who not only appreciate the unique requirements of game writing, but who understand the collaborative nature of the process and how production works across a variety of very different and specialised roles.”

Narrative in games has progessed over many years from text to interactive stories

While writing is obviously a requirement for a narrative design role, it is clear that more experience is often needed and that there isn’t a traditional way to enter a role in the field.

“I went at it in multiple ways and did a lot of unpaid work early on to bolster my CV,” says Rebellion narrative designer, Colin Harvey. “I managed to pitch and get some paid articles commissioned by magazines like Edge and Retro Gamer, as well as writing an unpaid column about games for an American website. I also got myself a scriptwriting gig on an indie game, again working for free. From there I was able to get freelance story development work with Sony, generating plot ideas according to their remits, which (huzzah!) was paid. All the while I was doing a PhD in video game storytelling, and slowly building up a portfolio of creative writing in other media.”

If you want to make games or break into the gaming field as a writer, get started right now. No excuses

Chris Avellone, Obsidian Entertainment

Rob Morgan also started his narrative design career with a role at Sony. “I started working in games as an editor (technically a junior producer) at Sony London Studio at a time when they were beginning to work on games with more words. I had good opportunities and worked my way up to game writer, then went freelance.

“I’ve done jobs that I’d describe as narrative design without being hired under that title, and I’ve been hired under that title to do work that I wouldn’t describe as narrative design. But that’s because the definition lags behind the skillset, and even further behind the need for the skillset.”

In the past five years alone, games have leaped from where they were with different mediums like VR creating more immersive experiences. Even FMV has returned to great effect.

“Not only has narrative design experienced democratisation through more easily accessible free tools for producing high quality solo content, but in general, studios increasingly view writing and narrative design as an intrinsic part of the game development process. Writers are often employed at earlier stages of projects to help shape the overall game and story design rather than being parachuted in at the last minute to fix pre-existing text,” says Ryalls. “VR, AR, mobile and the rise of procedural generation have also created unique challenges and opportunities for narrative design.”

“Increased demand for cross- platform accessibility has presented challenges to narrative designers who need to make sure the player journey rolls seamlessly between devices,” says Amiqus’ Liz Prince. “This is further complicated by the different levels of capability, all of which are evolving. Alongside developments in technical capability, narrative design has become a central component of new depths in immersive storytelling. The player experience has always been highly influenced by the expectation of the day, and the bar has been raising on production design value both in games and other story driven leisure genres such as TV drama.”

“I think there are greater expectations now on the part of players about the role storytelling can play,” adds Rebellion’s Colin Harvey. “Of course it’s partly budgetary, with the bigger companies able to throw more money at having multiple people working on the narrative side, but it’s also about getting the right systems in place so story is working hand in hand with the other elements.

“I also think there’s going to be increasing emphasis on the ‘transmedia’ side, with the narrative designer/writer being expected to expand the story universe beyond the game and into other media like comics, novels, alternative reality games, or at least work with other creators to do that.”

Starting as a writer is a big help, but traditional writing such as novels might not be enough, as David Varela from the Avron writing course explains. “Interactivity, the idea of giving agency to your reader, to your audience, is a big difference for conventional writers,” Varela says. “That sense that you can give your audience agency, and a role in the story without it becoming a branching narrative. It doesn’t have to be a ‘choose your own adventure’, there are other types of interactivity that you can include. That degree of interactivity that you are giving your players is in itself an artistic choice you are making as an author.

“They also might not fully understand the power of game mechanics to tell a story. If you look at Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, it does beautiful things with game mechanics that are difficult to articulate in any other medium. It works incredibly well. Or Device 6 where you are using the mechanics of the device to tell the story.

“Environmental storytelling is something that they don’t necessarily understand. The idea that you can explore a space, fill a set with clues. Writers from different backgrounds, from theatre and film, might understand that better. But it’s a skill that’s particularly useful in games.”

“Narrative design is second fiddle to nobody,” says Rob Morgan. “And it’s not just a middleman either. However, bear in mind that as a specialism it usually only has openings in large projects with a large amount of content to manage. On smaller projects the job is usually divvied up between story and design.” “There are no easy routes,” admits Rebellion’s Harvey. “Doing a course in screenwriting or creative writing can help, or specialising in game narrative as part of a game design degree.

“Some people come in via other media like comics or film, but of course you need to establish yourself in those media first. If you’re suitably enterprising, getting a job in QA and then chatting with the narrative designer/game writer might pay dividends.”

However, as is often the case, the best approach may just be to start writing as Obsidian Entertaiment’s creative director Chris Avellone concludes. “If you want to make games or break into the gaming field as a writer, get started right now. No excuses. There is very little preventing anyone from designing and writing for games via mods and seeing that on a resume/portfolio moves those applicants to the top.”

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