What is Narrative Design?
Narrative Designer is a relatively new sub-group in the well established Game Design field with focus on narrative. It is however a pretty modern title, and hence it’s not always easy to know what it’s about or how it is defined between studios. To quote Wikipedia “There are no agreed-upon industry-wide definitions of what exactly comprises a narrative designer’s responsibilities.”
What I know about Narrative Design I have learnt from being a Narrative Designer at Respawn. I have always been drawn to narrative and in some instances I was pretty much already doing “narrative design” prior to this. An example was scripting the level Milestone 6 from Syndicate 2012, Chapter 2 Asylum on Wolfenstein: The New Order and the basic, first version of Fort Tarsis on Anthem.
Narrative Designer, an umbrella term
At Respawn, writing is part of Narrative Design along with Dialogue Design. Narrative Design is also seen as a subgroup of Game Design, specialized in narrative and story. This is when it easily becomes fuzzy, so what is Narrative Design? Is it writing or gameplay? It’s both and even more. I know, I’m not making this easy.
Narrative Designer, Jack of all trades.
At Respawn I have the title Narrative Designer. My primary focus was planning and implementing our collectible assets “Echoes” and “Scans” with focus on filling in lore about our game.
A narrative designer did everything that involved BD-1, with specialization in companion characters and NPCs. Another narrative designer colleague handled our hub states and more. There is so much that involves narrative design, and a lot of us in narrative have either a technical or writing background.
Our main writer and story visionaire is the Narrative Director. Together with other writers they write the critical path/main story and character bios. Writers are the primary story source for the rest of the (narrative) team to align and understand the story and the world, providing rules and guidelines to support the rest of the team. Also part of casting they are present during motion capture shoots and are one of the few developers who gets to directly work with our actors.
With an artistic eye to help bring the writer’s vision into life, with emphasis on our most important scenes, the cinematic designers are part of motion capture and are also the ones who put together the scenes in the engine. They work very closely with artists, technical animators and animators as well as level design who implements the cinematic into the right location at the right time. Cinematic designers have since become a part of the animation team as they work so heavily together but used to be part of the narrative team.
Dialogue Designers on our project primarily wrote all the combat dialogues and oversaw pre-combat dialogue systems. The one about “What’d you think flame beetles taste like?” is one of my favorites.
Technical Narrative Designer
We even have technical narrative designers, which is essentially Tech Designer with focus on narrative systems and tools. A dedicated tech person for our system, which has been incredibly important, as narrative do require a lot of systems like any other design discipline.
We are still exploring what Narrative Design means and especially understanding where the boundaries are between different design departments. The biggest take away is that everything I’ve learnt as a scripter, gameplay designer and level designer, leading up my current title as narrative designer, have been immensely useful and I can use all this past knowledge and experience in my current role today. This is the biggest beauty with game design, everything you learn will be useful in any game design role.