When I joined the industry as a games journalist in 1998, no-one was really paying much attention to story and character.
Narrative work was being done, but it was usually by designers, or perhaps the producer who wrote short stories at home, or literally anyone who had the time and inclination. Certainly no-one was out there really discussing the craft with their peers or the press.
But over the last 18 years, I’ve seen a lot of change. The focus on creating more impactful narratives has increased exponentially. There are more conferences, talks and workshops on games narrative than ever before. Established awards such as BAFTA and the WGA have recognised video game storytelling, script and character for a number of years now. It’s an exciting time for storytellers.
The drive for technical greatness and realism is ever-present. Yet it’s a crowded race that’s largely dominated by the triple-A. Focusing on narrative – from episodic storytelling, to environmental narrative, to capturing emotion and performance – is helping titles and studios stand out from the crowd.
When I worked with Crystal Dynamics to reboot Tomb Raider in 2013, we put the reimagining of Lara Croft and her journey front and centre of the whole experience. We cultivated a respect for the character which not only went through her narrative, but also her art, animation and performance. It became the fastest-selling title in the franchise, shifting over 8.5 million units and reinvigorating the franchise like never before.
Although professional game writers are not the rarity they used to be, the industry is still working out how best to use them and where exactly they fit into an established team structure – especially for those studios for whom past narrative endeavours may have only been considered a wrapper for the gameplay, and not what is rapidly becoming a fundamental component. As a result, we are still experiencing teething troubles trying to fit what are often seen as square pegs into the round holes of traditional games development.
If writers don’t already exist within a team, they can often be hired too late in the process, relegating them to a ‘narrative paramedic’ role where they can’t do much more than patch up the story.
Much of this occurs because writers are considered to be the ones who just do the ‘word bits’, a part of development that is wrongly considered to be cheap, easy and can be slotted in at some future date.
In fact, what writers can do is similar to what designers do – namely world-building and finding ways to use the mechanics and gameplay to create a cohesive narrative experience from the ground up.
Another area where writers can lead the charge is engaging the rest of the team in the narrative and seeing how all facets can play into and support it.
You see, as much as I love my area of development, narrative in games cannot be seen as purely the writer’s domain. Narrative flows through everything in a game world – the art, animation, mechanics, music and so on. Therefore everything must be utilised if we are to make the most of the immense narrative power that this medium has.
In the future, we must all become better storytellers.
Article originally published in Develop: March 2016 issue.