Yesterday I found myself being part of a very intriguing discussion on narrative design and the role of the narrative designer in game development. Participants in the discussion were Stephen E. Dinehart, Steve Ince, Armando Troisi, Jacob Krarup and J.B. Vorderkunz.
It all started when Stephen asked:
“[Are you] a narrative designer or a writer? Perhaps both? How do you define the role of [narrative designer] and how does it differ from the role of writer?”
My answer was built around a few points:
1. A narrative designer makes sure that gameplay progression serves a dramatic purpose. It is writerly work on the macro level. A writer, on the other hand, seems to be someone who works on the micro level: she’s writing the detailed scripts that are required and decided by the overall narrative design. This is how I see the divide in the game industry between these two positions. The division itself has its problems, and most of these problems stem from the game industry’s stance on story’s role in games: the game industry still sees it as a “game + a story” thing, and most writer roles, even that of the narrative designer, are considered to be secondary to that that of the game designer.
2. But the relation between game design and game writing is not a matter of creating harmony between two seperate aesthetic or informational “tracks” (the gameplay track and the story track). In reality, a game is always something bigger than gameplay+story: Just like the relation between shapes in Gestalt theory. In my opinion, narrative design cares to shape the added value born out of the synchresis of gameplay and narration. In other words, this is writing as design, not writing as mere writing.
3. On the other hand, narrative design may not require extensive writing. One may construct drama without dialogue and other textual elements. The narrative design process is medium-dependent: you deliver what the narrative needs to deliver through the constraints and possibilities of the medium that is being used for narration. In a medium that evolved as quick as video games, you might easily miss the point that game design in the past always involved a level of narrative design: Just have a look at how Sid Meier or Chris Crawford were designing their games in the 80s and 90s. The effort they put into their games to make sure the gameplay is dramatically compelling makes me think that they were also narrative designers.
4. Which brings me to the following conclusion: A lead game designer may not necessarily be a good writer, but in a sense, she is always already a narrative designer.
But now games have become more complex and dramaturgically more demanding, and “intuitive” narrative design isn’t always enough.
Giving it all a bit more elaboration (and making use of the more convenient space of my blog) I want to add a few more things to the points above:
I think the role of the game designer gets complicated at the point where the exposure of the game world and characters requires more writerly work. Why more writerly work is needed nowadays may have many reasons, of course. But when that is the case, the rules of dramaturgy get into the mix: how you introduce characters and their relations, how you relate them to conflict and deliver the way they evolve, how you maintain necessity and unity in a story that might change direction based on player choice etc. These are difficult things and require a different type of skill and knowledge. And in most cases it might be too much too ask a game designer alone to deal with these aspects of the game.
In the past, the game industry seemed to have the tendency to bring in a writer to deal with low level aspects of “story”. This was also in accord with the “game + a story” way of thinking. The problem here however was, that writers who were asked to write some text would soon become aware of structural problems in the narrative aspect of the overall game design and they would feel that they lack control over content. Most writer would say that they were brought in “too late”, i.e, they were not involved in the design of the macro-level of the story, and their writing could not “save” the game anymore.
So the problem here is not writing per se, but structuring the game anew, so that gameplay and narrative make sense as a whole. This is probably what Mark Laidlaw did in Half-Life 2, and where the industry made a clever use of a writer for the first time in its history (?).
I believe a narrative designer jumps in at the structure level and makes sure that gameplay progression equals to dramatic progression and that the whole always collapses into a meaningful experience. She may later on also deal with the lower detail works of the writing job, but the really important point in hiring a narrative designer is to make sure that structure is always in its place, even if the game has branches and multiple endings. The narrative designer is also important in other macro level aspects, such as finding the best ways for exposure and the application of other narration techniques.
However, many narrative designers are still much more restricted to “writer” roles. Many of them do not come in early enough to work on the macro level (the narrative design), or their role is limited to that of an “advisor”. Their primary role is still to create the textual elements for moments or scenes in the game that have been mostly already laid out and decided by the game designer.
But what does it mean for a writer not to be allowed to do narrative design? I think the feeling that a writer has when she must write text for a “narrative” that has been already decided but whose flaws are apparent, is the desire to be a narrative designer :)
The problem here is that the division of labour in the game industry in regard to game writing does not correspond thorougly with the working levels in developing a narrative: Planning comes before writing. Writing is design first, then writing.
The industry still works according to the notion of “games + a story” and the rather new role of the narrative designer is still limited to be someone who mediates between the game designer (the “boss”) and game writer (the “subordinated”). That is, even narrative designers are rather used for writing, and not so much for design.
But in order to fill the gap between the working levels of design in writing, a mediatory role between game design and low level writing will not be sufficient. First of all, the conception of ”games + a story” is wrong; we are not dealing with tracks that need to be harmonized; we always already deal with a whole. Design starts not only with gameplay, but with narrative as well. Second, a narrative designer too, will ask for more than a mediatory role in the long term, because in order to get the whole right, you do not only need to design the narrative, but you also need more control over the gameplay design.
I believe that in the future narrative designers will play a more important role in the overall development process of games, and they will have control over both, game design and the working levels in writing. Whether these people will be still called narrative designers at that time is another question, but I think Stephen Dinehart works hard to keep the title alive and I hope that his efforts will contribute to narrative designers occupying a stronger position in game design. But considering that the “games aren’t narratives” notion is very strong in the game industry, I feel that a title that has “narrative” in it is very difficult to hold a position that isn’t being considered as key as that of the game designer.
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