MLC Games Industry Knowledge Event – 16th September 2022, 2-9PM BST on our Discord server

Importance of Narrative Design in Modern Video Games

As much as narrative design is (hopefully) a carefully put together part of your game development pipeline, there can still be a lot of confusion surrounding where it overlaps with other disciplines and what it actually entails.

George, one of our wonderful MLC Narrative Designers, has kindly put together this blog about the importance of narrative design, to help prevent you from potentially hurting game development.

Narrative Design in Games

How can one craft a gripping tale around a character they have no semblance of control over? Where their protagonist’s actions are as unpredictable as they are unfathomable? Where, more often than not, the most integral and reliable source of traditional storytelling is wholly taken away from the meticulous hands of the writers themselves?

What a ridiculous notion, one might muse at the thought, yet this extraordinary set of challenges represent a common dilemma that many narrative designers will, inevitably, face over the span of their usually turbulent careers. It is, in fact, their primary directive to not only learn to master the process of manoeuvring this incredibly difficult (and often irritating) challenge, but to do so with unbridled elegance and style; not to mention, on the same ever-growing and increasingly competitive landscape that the world of modern game development has become.

What even is narrative design? Why is it considered essential? What is the difference between a writer and a narrative designer? Or, more importantly, why does this portion of creative work tend to be surrounded by a seemingly constant aura of mystery and confusion?

What Narrative Design Actually Means

One could say, with definitive vigor, that the above-mentioned concerns suffer no lack of validity whatsoever; and, admittedly, the answers to these questions are often found to be more perplexing than not. Yet, it is within that same chaotic swirl of creative energy where the true essence of the story must bloom. It is the melting pot, this arduous process of self-discovery and exploration, in which cascades of ambitious ideas are carefully planted and refined into weapons of exposition, setting and drama; only to then be placed, with the utmost delicacy, within the ever-elusive borders of rationality and practical application.

In short, it is the responsibility, which the narrative designer has taken upon himself, to ensure that the player (in this case, the protagonist of their mostly incalculable story) is so aptly engrossed in the play, that they not only serve as a willing participant of sorts, but as the integral element through which the very story itself unfolds. It is through the player’s agency, within the confines of the choices offered, that they must help weave the many intricate details of that same adventure that has been so loyally laid out before them.

How It Should Make Players Feel

How the player relates to the fantastical world around them, and how that same world relates to the player, are the basic building blocks of interactive storytelling. For the narrative designer, it is imperative, through the usage of a wide range of passive and active storytelling techniques, to ensure that the player receives ample amounts of feedback and validation for their actions, whatever those actions might be. It is through the player’s choices that the game’s story must manifest itself, allowing their behavior to give context to the world around them, and the reactive peculiarities of that same world to provide additional context to those same actions committed by the player.

Preferably, it is an interwoven, interdependent relationship between two radical opposites – the player and the game; with the game’s setting serving as a rigid outline in which the free-flowing, independent element (that is the player) is contained. Therefore, an experienced narrative designer will not only aim to make use of, but also work to create new opportunities that will allow these moments of interplay to happen as frequently as possible during key gameplay moments.

One could deduce even, that it is exactly this type of regular interplay between player and game that makes up for genuinely effective and memorable storytelling. It does not come as a surprise then, that, statistically, narrative-based video games boast over a 70 percent full game completion rate across all gaming platforms, in comparison to the surprisingly low 30-to-40 percent completion rate for games that players would describe as not having well-crafted characters or deeply immersive story arcs.

Sci-fi Lore Entries – George

Another interesting observation, perhaps, would be that a large portion of players who claim to rarely ever engage with the lore and worldbuilding of non-narrative-based video games altogether, would still wish for these same titles to have invested in rich and in-depth characterisation, as it is considered to vastly increase the general quality of the product and the desire to experience it.

What Does This Mean for the Role of a Narrative Designer?

The work of the narrative designer, then, is one most concerned with the careful upholding of balance. It is a constant strive to both ensure clarity and engaging delivery of information, while, through a combination of sonic, subversive and visual storytelling techniques, facilitate emotionally charged pay-offs that will serve to conquer the hearts of their subjects; and the memories of which will become ingrained in their minds for years to come. It is the narrative designer’s goal to make use of a plethora of resources to create memorable, fulfilling moments that will stand the test of time.

It’s the worlds, characters and stories, and the emotions that they excite within us, that anchor our imaginations to these handcrafted experiences, granting them longevity and the iconic status of a story well told; and it is this unspoken sense of rapport, therefore, serving as the unbreakable vow between the two primary storytellers (the player and the writer), that infuses the experience of the game with an unmatched sense of wonder that modern enjoyers have learnt to appreciate so.

Thus, the work of the narrative designer, in recent years, has surely become increasingly difficult. With the rapid and constant rise of standards for dialogue, prose and storytelling quality, and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for new and innovative narrative arcs – the intricacies of which have yet to find its limits – has ushered a new era of immaculately crafted, deeply intimate, cinematic experiences akin to blockbuster movies that now serve to achieve similar effects through this new and exciting medium.

Therefore, what, in the past, would commonly be considered as little more than an afterthought, in the form of high quality narrative delivery, has now become one of the most desirable, sought-after industry standards across almost all genres of modern video games.

Summary

In conclusion, it is safe to assume that one cannot underestimate the power of a well-crafted story. As the standards and expectations for deeply engaging narrative increase throughout the industry, the importance of delivering new and exquisite ways of storytelling has never been greater.


Thanks so much to George for this unsurprisingly beautifully written piece. Hopefully you have found his points helpful and something you can take with you when working on your current or next game project. If you would like our help with narrative design for your game, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

Contact

Get in touch so we can get creative