How Narrative Design Brings Games to Life

Think of a story that’s changed your life; everyone has one. Is it an epic, like the Iliad or Homer’s Odyssey? Is it a Disney classic, the kind that played on every family movie night at home? Or maybe it’s a cultural tale, an old fable, a story very few others know. Regardless, everyone has a story that resonated with them so deeply as to find a permanent place in their heart.

Behind that story of yours is a narrator, the tale’s architect, the person who decided the ultimate course (and eventual conclusion) of the narrative. When it comes to movies, we call that person a screenwriter. In the world of books, they’re an author. But when it comes to the intricate realm of games, this person is a narrative designer.


A Storyteller’s Craft: What Narrative Game Designers Do

Narrative: A spoken or written account of connected events; a story."

Google Dictionary

In short, narrative game designers create the core of the player’s experience. They work with the rest of the game design and development team to craft a holistic gameplay experience, deciding on the game’s core narrative, its theme, and the player’s path through the world.

Back when game design was a new discipline, developers took care of the narrative design, coding, and game flow creation all by themselves. These days, dedicated narrative designers take on the story work, acting as the architects to the developers’ builders.

While a narrative designer might be able to transition between multiple disciplines, the role is defined by a singular goal: to create a story that accomplishes a game’s main goal. Whether that goal is to educate a learner, to scare a player, or demonstrate a particular experience, every aspect of the story must reflect those intentions.


The Core of a Game

Every game has a core. In the industry, this term is used to define a game’s overall intention, a shorthand way of describing what the player should come away from the game with.

For example, a horror game’s core is typically to make the player fearful, while roleplaying games focus on character development, and an educational game’s core is to teach the learner something new. But what does that have to do with narrative design?

It’s that person’s job to create a story that runs parallel to the game’s core intention, while also making it fun, engaging, and immersive for the player. They walk the line between storytelling and game design, dipping into both without leaning too far either way. When done well, narrative game design will create the desired impact in the player without derailing them from the game’s course too much. Examples of beautifully designed gameplay narratives are all over the industry, each providing new steppingstones for the designers succeeding them.


The Best in the Business: Narrative Game Design Successes

Defining all the factors of excellent narrative game design may take an age, simply because each game has its own unique attributes that make it singularly excellent. That said, a well-designed game narrative has a few key markers that make it stand out:

  • The story is impactful. Emotional investment goes a long way towards encouraging player immersion, no matter the core of the game. Narrowing in on a facet of human experience and expressing it well takes a game to a new level, transporting the player to a place that allows them to experience that same facet in all its intensity.
  • The gameplay mechanics resonate with the core. With any game, one of the toughest things for a narrative designer to do is come up with themes and mechanics that resonate with the game’s core. When done successfully, every mechanic, storyline, and feature in a game contributes to the player’s experience of the core.  
  • It’s fun. At the foundation of every game lies the element of fun. It’s what makes gamification of new concepts so effective – players actually want to be doing it! Even when its frustrating, even if they have to try really hard to progress to the next level, the game has to be fun and engaging enough to incentivise the player’s progression. Just as you want your reader to get to the end of the book, you want your player to get to the end of a game.

Let’s dive into some examples of excellent narrative design. (Warning: Spoiler alert!)

BioShock


bioshock
BioShock Video Game Series

Core: Character development

A retro-futuristic first-person shooter (FPS) game on the surface, BioShock is actually a stunning example of story writing and game mechanics working in harmony. Aside from the gripping storytelling, the game utilises the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ to great effect, allowing the player to piece together this underwater realm’s history without force feeding it to them.

In this first iteration you play as Jack, a stranded air crash victim who lands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the 1960s. From there, you find your way down into the Rapture, the underwater world built and subsequently abandoned many years prior. Dodging characters of every shape and size, you attempt to escape the Rapture with the help of Atlas, a man communicating with you solely over radio. The best part? You can constantly upgrade your own physiology, adding new powers like fireblasts, telekinesis, and even summoning a murder of crows to your arsenal.

At the core of the experience lies the game writer’s sense of fantasy and an almost fully realised sense of nostalgia for a place that has never existed. This highlights how well-conceptualised the base concept is, leaving very few plot holes and ‘deus ex machina’ moments to remove the player from the story. In short, it’s an example of what the FPS format can be if taken seriously.

So, would you kindly play the game?

Strengths:

  • Effective environmental storytelling
  • Engaging plot
  • Features and mechanics strongly tied to game core
  • Original and compelling concept
  • Effective environmental storytelling
  • Engaging plot
  • Features and mechanics strongly tied to game core
  • Original and compelling concept

Outlast

Core: Survival

Outlast began as an indie venture, and thanks to the creators’ dedication to crisp narrative design, their first release sparked a wave of interest in horror game enthusiasts across the globe. While there are two Outlast games now available to play, the first is an exemplary piece demonstrating what game designers and developers can do with a well-envisioned story.

In the game, you play as a reporter named Miles Upshur, who has been dispatched to investigate an asylum supposedly gone off the rails. Right as you enter the game, you are informed there is no way to fight. Your only options are to run, hide, or die.

When it comes to narrative design, removing the combat mechanic from a game altogether is a brilliant way to spur a player’s survival instinct on. Instead of the ability to fight, players are able to progress the plot by hiding from hostile NPCs and gathering information via their camera and notebook. The camera’s night vision lends and eerie glow to the night-time asylum setting, and thanks to the battery mechanic, they can only use it for so long before it runs out of power.

The story itself is a brilliant example of investigative storytelling, establishing a base lore and allowing the player to dive as deep as they wish into Mount Massive Asylum’s true origins.

In short, this game’s narrative construction puts it well above many others in the horror genre, inspiring not only fear, but a gut-wrenching terror and disquiet as you attempt to survive the inhabitants of Mount Massive.

Strengths:

  • Excellent mechanic design to place the player in survival mode
  • Top-tier environmental construction and art style
  • Sound design scores terrifying moments just right
  • A compelling, lore-driven story arch with a fulfilling ending

Bastion

Core: Exploration and triumph

Supergiant is a fixture in the pantheon of top-tier games for a very good reason. Known for their unique and engaging narrative design, the games coming out of this particular workshop tend to conquer the Steam leader boards for a while following their release.

One game in particular – released in 2011 – still occupies a place in the hearts and minds of many gamers: Bastion. A platformer and narrative RPG all rolled into one, this game uses a responsive narrator, gorgeous art style, and compelling story to capture its players from moment one.

Playing simply as ‘the Kid’, you make your way through world after world as it is built around you, fetching cores and levelling your skills to build the ‘Bastion’, which acts as your home base.

Even as you step into the tutorial phase of the game, you don’t feel like you’re being guided. Rather, the narrator appears to be observing you, commenting as you make decisions, which further immerses you in the game. You feel as if you are truly seen by some detached entity, like the game understands your intentions, and the platform style adds to this masterpiece’s re-playability.

Strengths:

  • Responsive, unique, and engaging narration
  • Stunning art style and sound design
  • Transformative take on the platform game style
  • Strong narrative presence throughoutThis is by no means an extensive list, but if you’re interested in more examples, the best thing to do is: play games! Stories that resonate with you are the most important, so why not give one of the games on the list a try to broaden your horizons?

This is by no means an extensive list, but if you’re interested in more examples, the best thing to do is: play games! Stories that resonate with you are the most important, so why not give one of the games on the list a try to broaden your horizons?

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