What’s a Narrative Designer?
Perhaps you’ve seen the titles at the close of your epic Big Fish game adventure, once the end credits roll: “Narrative Designer,” and there’s even a “Manager of Narrative Design.” These sound like pretty fancy jobs, but what exactly do these people do?
The answer: whatever it takes to bring you a great game story experience.
We start at the concept stage, with Big Fish partner developers submitting a game story to us on paper. They follow a template we’ve provided that asks them to identify the time period and setting, share inspiration art, and outline the high-level plot points. We pay particular attention to the cut-scene plans for the opening, key story moments, and ending. That is, unless the game doesn’t have a traditional ending; some of the new free-to-play games don’t.
Our job is to critique the concept drafts along with Big Fish producers, who work directly with developers to make their concepts as strong as they can be. We look for great story lines that work for a game – so not just any story will do. You can’t take a novel and shoehorn it into the structure of a game. And a story idea that might work great as a comic book, a movie, or a stage play won’t necessarily work for a game – at least not without some serious tweaking.
For example, you’ll notice if you played the bestselling Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that the story line deviates somewhat from the original classic. While working on the game at concept, I saw an opportunity for comedy and drama if we made “Good Scrooge” and “Bad Scrooge” into an angel and devil arguing their points to the player character. Elephant Games took the idea and ran with it, and the result worked really well in the game:
The next time narrative designers weigh in on story is at the game design document stage. Our partner developers submit a template created by producers that basically asks them to walk us through a representative portion of the game step-by-step. We narrative designers look for how well the story has been fleshed out in detail, and for the integration of story with game play. We don’t want too much story so that players feel as if they’re watching a movie or reading a book instead of playing a game, but we also want to make sure the story provides a seamless plot to follow as you explore and play. Even though some players say they don’t care about story, we know that it’s the games with great stories that sell better and are rated higher.
We also help out with the actual writing in the game, which means anything from light edits to full rewriting. We “naturalize” the writing of developers working in other countries who might not have the immersive language experience with American English to fully carry that off in their text.
And sometimes, even if their English and knowledge of American pop culture is excellent, developers might be whizzes at programming and art design but not trained as professional writers. Narrative designers are specialists with fine arts degrees in creative writing and/or numerous publication credits to our names who can add zing to the text.
We often build in more characterization, insert humor and drama, and punch up both the dialogue and the in-game screen text. We also help streamline tutorial messages and add flavor to achievement, collectible, and item names in the game.
For example, here’s a rewrite of the tutorial message in Found that both clarifies the goal and adds colorful characterization:
We can also take advantage of opportunities for light humor – as in Riddles of Fate when the player comes across a shrieking plant:
Or add drama to cut-scene voice-overs, as in this one in Punished Talents:
Before a game launches, we make sure every line of text in the game is as polished as can be and that there are no text-based bugs or errors in the game. This might include rewriting the mini-game text to make sure players understand them:
Guide creators add another foolproof layer to mini-game help as well, by showing players the solution:
It then goes on to our Quality Assurance team, which conducts a full round of bug-testing.
On some of the newer games such as Dark Manor, we sketch out new story lines to add to subsequent updates as well.
Our job satisfaction comes from seeing a game we helped create make our customers happy. We especially love positive comments in the forums. Guide writers are happy when no player struggles to get through a game. For narrative designers, most often, story is the thing people only comment on when it’s broken, so if a customer makes a point to call out a well-written line of text or rave about the story overall, that really makes our day!