Narrative Roles in Game Development
A writer, narrative designer and techincal narrative designer walk into a bar...
Note: Callum is dyslexic. (Yes dyslexic people can work in narrative and writing) That means this post will likely have some odd spelling and grammar. English is an evolving language and dyslexics are on the frontlines of improving it in their own way. If something doesn’t make sense just ask.
Forgive me for this indulgence but it is a rite of passage for any person talking about narrative in game dev. It needs to be done. I need to talk about what exactly a narrative designer is! Also, narrative roles in general because there is still an element of confusion around all of them.
The mixed ideas around what narrative roles there are and should be stem from a few things. Mainly the organic way these roles started appearing in the games industry. Then how they spread to various studios and teams. The result of which is that every panel on narrative for games has to take up a chunk of time defining what it is we do.
In reality, three core disciplines fall under the narrative banner for game dev: Narrative Design, Technical Narrative Design and Writing. Teams and studios will annoyingly use different names for these disciplines and sometimes use them interchangeably which isn’t great.
This has resulted in a lot of confusion when looking at narrative job listings for those applying. “I thought this was a content writing job, not a technical one? Why am I being asked to implement branching dialogue?”
With frustration for those hiring if they’re looking for what they think is a narrative designer when what they want is a writer. “Why is the narrative designer talking about interactivity all the time? They just need to write the script!”
So let’s break it down:
The wordsmiths1. The people who knuckle down and write the dialogue for the script, the item descriptions, the menu text, backstories and more. Like the other disciplines, they will also be involved in the story plotting and delivery planning. Feeding it back into their areas of focus. They own the story world and its content. They will write you extensive backstories for minor characters and objects in the game and you will be thankful for it. You will also learn many cool words from them. They love words so much!
The delivery person. The number one thing a narrative designer needs to do is constantly ask and answer the question, “How do we convey the story through our gameplay and systems?” Games are interactive, and the story for them should be too. This means Narrative Designers tend to straddle the line between Writer and Technical Narrative Designer. Working closely with both to deliver on the…delivery of the narrative of a game. Side note: This is my discipline and I love it because I get to do bits of writing, plotting and worldbuilding as well as focused game design.
Technical Narrative Designer
The true gems. Tech narrative designers are amazing. They take the nonsense the writers come up with and the delivery ideas they work on with the narrative designer and put them into the game. Improving them in the process because they are just that good at what they do. They own implementation and will be heavily involved in the technical side of the game’s development as a result. Again like the other disciplines, they will also be involved in the story plotting, worldbuilding and delivery planning.
These are super high-level descriptions but hopefully, they hammer home the key differences between them. Also the similarities.
It is healthy that everyone in your narrative team has a say in the narrative of the game you are working on. We work in narrative because we love interactive storytelling, it is our passion. A good team uses that to its full advantage. A technical narrative designer will have a different viewpoint on the story than the narrative designer. Who will have a different one to the writers. The push and pull between the three will lead to better ideas, better stories and better ways of experiencing that story through the act of play.
There are more specialised roles than these in some teams (hello performance direction!) but these are the three core disciplines. For smaller teams and people who want to do everything, you want to be a narrative designer who can write and get their hands dirty in the engine.
When looking at job listings I would recommend you probe what the listing has under its responsibilities and requirements/desired skills. That will let you know which way the team want you to lean. It is also a really good question for you to ask in the job interview if you word it in the right way. Don’t “urm…actually..” it, just politely say, “So the job title is narrative designer but when I read the description it screamed technical narrative designer to me. Is that what you’re looking for?” Blow their minds and potentially have them make the job fit your skillset at the same time!
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