Every month, MCV’s Levelling Up gives you cherry picked advice to help you reach the next level in your career. This month, Sumo Digital Nottingham’s Sarah Longthorne tells us more about the many different paths that can lead to narrative design and how you can create your own opportunities.
What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work?
I’m the narrative designer for Sumo Digital Nottingham, which makes me responsible for all matters concerning… well, narrative. My day to day changes depending on the project and the timeline. For example, if we’re in the concept stage, I’ll be writing up story proposals that seek to contextualise the game mechanics. If the game follows a narrative, my next task will be writing an outline that breaks down the key beats, which I make more granular over various iterations. Then comes the actual writing, which again varies depending on the project and, more specifically, how the narrative is delivered. Games that utilise cutscenes will require scripted dialogue, whereas others may only need bark lines – short snippets of dialogue triggered during gameplay that tell the player useful information, such as whether there are enemies nearby. Some need both. After that, rewriting and editing.
What qualifications and/or experience do you need to land this job?
The main thing is portfolio credits. I have a BA in Scriptwriting and Performance from the University of East Anglia, but initially I went into marketing and landed a job at Jagex. From there, I sought out opportunities to contribute writing to Jagex’s titles and got involved in game design initiatives in my spare time, which furnished my portfolio with several credits – enough to find work as a bona fide narrative designer. I’d been doing it full time for just under a year before Sumo approached me about my current role.
That said, there’s no one way to get into narrative design. I’ve seen people who came in from game or level design, from QA, from computer science, journalism or film and TV, and all of those will give you a different kind of edge, different skills that can supercharge your CV. But they won’t get you all the way there; writing for film and TV requires different skills to writing interactive fiction, for instance. Eventually, it all comes down to demonstrating what you can do. Getting someone to trust you with your first credit is hard, but that’s why most of us advocate creating your own games using tools like Twine, Inky and RenPy. If the opportunities aren’t coming your way, create opportunities for yourself.
“Tell me about games that got it wrong and why. Show me that you understand what makes a great game sizzle… and a bad game fizzle.”
If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for?
There’s the role-specific answer and the generic answer. Teamwork, initiative, creativity, humility, the ability to prioritise and manage your time. Those are qualities I want in all my colleagues. For a narrative design role, however, I’d want to see that a candidate can not only write well, but adapt to and mirror different tones of voice, different genres and apply themselves to various kinds of games writing – from barks to interactive scripts – with a knowledge of what makes those things brilliant and how to use them to their full potential. I’d want to gauge their basic understanding of game and level design, and I’d want to see enthusiasm about those things – but above all, about story. Tell me about a story in a game that inspired you, and what about its design and execution made it stand out. Tell me about games that got it wrong and why. Show me that you understand what makes a great game sizzle… and a bad game fizzle.
What opportunities are there for career progression?
There are quite a few directions a narrative designer can take. Some will want to climb the management ladder, passing on the writing itself to their team while they take on a more directorial role – maybe reaching the heights of creative director and beyond. Others may want to explore different avenues of narrative design, delving into different mediums and genres, and others still might take the transferrable skills they’ve learnt to migrate to other disciplines, like game or level design. Once you’re in, the industry’s your oyster.